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Black Magic
By Margaret Black

The Magician’s Study:
A Guided Tour of the Life, Times, and Memorabilia
of Robert “The Great” Rouncival

By Tobias Seamon
Turtle Point Press, 183 pages, $15.95

Like Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, or almost anything by Steven Millhauser, Tobias Seamon’s new novel The Magician’s Study seduces you into a world of strange and passionate people who make what is often a tawdry, gimcrack magic. But sometimes amid the sleight of hand and fakery, something scarily sinister or luminously astonishing, even miraculous, happens.

The novel’s daylong tour through the bizarre memorabilia stuffed in Robert Rouncival’s mansion slowly uncovers his story as an amazing Jazz Age magician second only (perhaps) to Harry Houdini. But the book is also an account of that brief era—peopled by gangsters, musicians, artists, gamblers, movie actors, crazy heedless jazz babies—when New York’s Yiddish theater and vaudeville transformed—before your very eyes!—into mainstream American entertainment. And at the heart of this tale there also beats the complicated jealous love of three people for each other: Rouncival the Great, his oversized protector and friend, Sherpa the Silent, and the headstrong demanding heiress to a flour fortune, Margaret Tillinghast.

Having suffered excruciating medical malpractice on a broken leg as a child, Rouncival manages to avoid extermination in the First World War when “the lamps of Europe were doused and the old world was murdered beneath the mud of Flanders.” Although weak and in constant pain, Rouncival takes to the road, joins a moth-eaten circus, and, after the death of his brother in the war in France, flees to Mexico, where the man who is his alter ego, Roberto Hernandez, saves him in a barroom brawl. In one of Rouncival’s earliest transformations, Roberto, a swarthy former sailor (more likely pirate) becomes Sherpa the Silent, Rouncival’s allegedly Tibetan assistant, and the two men return to America. They settle into New York’s Bowery next door to a small theater, the Silver Stage, owned and operated by Bill Silver (formerly Wilhelm Zylbar), and Rouncival manages to “insinuate” himself as a magic act between performances of the Minsk Troupe. There Margaret Tillinghast, slumming with some rich friends, sees his act and, enthralled, decides not only to become his financial backer, but his assistant as well. The threesome—Robert (the Great), Roberto (or Sherpa the Silent), and Margaret (or Minnie the Pearl) achieve phenomenal success, not the least through Margaret’s talking breasts. She may not like that part of the act, but Robert amuses himself and the audience enormously by throwing his voice to make the barely covered breasts tell particularly off-color stories.

The guide’s narrative skips past their period of success, explaining only one trick in detail, a wonderfully elaborate piece called “The Glass Chateau,” in which Rouncival, standing inside a huge glass birdcage, fires off innumerable rounds of bullets without shattering the glass walls. Love eventually breaks the trio apart. A hostile Rouncival, performing now as Sachem Morpho, turns to performances so black and scary that even Dutch Schultz is heard to mutter, “That man ain’t no goddamn magician, that’s the fucking devil.”

Yet more changes are in store for all the cast, and some wonderful magic, including a myriad of sharp knives thrown into the air that come down forming an arrow, and a violent whirlwind of leaves that change colors: “They were dark green again, then orange or crimson, then pale as spring blossoms, all winding and circling Robert . . . the leaves sang in the round, rising, falling, suspended almost but still moving from spring to winter and back again.”

Seamon has great descriptive powers: “The blue jays, growling like Tammany hacks, shouted the temperance-minded sparrows down.” But he’s no sensitive sap, as is obvious when Robert “snarls” of a former lover that she was “a vampire too stupid to realize how little blood I had left to give. Wherever she is, I hope she’s dead with her head cut off.” Or speaking of a marriage, “If their union was sordid, at least it had been made sordid in the eyes of God.”

Old letters from major and minor figures supplement the voice of the guide, who narrates most of the story. In addition, many of the objects the guide explains to the tour are so vivid they almost speak on their own. Even the behavior and actions of those on the tour figure in the story’s telling, although this technique has mixed success.

Overall it’s a wonderful book and a terrific read. We can all cheer when someone in publishing recognizes a remarkable talent like Tobias Seamon’s, but I, for one, am not surprised that it would be a small independent press that made the effort to get this satisfying book to hungry readers. Seamon is, in addition, a local author, so he certainly deserves local support.

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