Today’s review is the second of three books I purchased on my last trip around the UK for a series of job interviews. At the start of the summer I purchased ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ by Philip Pullman, Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold and ‘Heavens Shadow’ by David S Goyer (he of The Dark Knight) and Michael Cassutt (he of The Twilight Zone), from a Waterstones in Doncaster. It was unusual enough of me to be purchasing paperbacks since I buy most of my books on my lovely Kindle, but all the more unusual to buy from a Waterstones, a company in recent years which gives bad names to brick and mortar book stores. They also treated my fiancée terribly when she worked for them. However I digress, this was a taint free branch store and I have to say, two books into my Three for Two deal, I am delighted with my purchases. Religion, Magic, hard Sci-Fi. I had quite the eclectic choice that day.
Carter Beats the Devil is the first novel from Glen David Gold who reveals a debt of gratitude to the UC Irvine Creative Writing Program as “the greatest learning experience of my life” It took him five years to write this book and vast quantities of his student loan to buy biographies and memoirs of magicians and other pieces of research. If you had doubts about the usefulness of creative writing programs or writing circles this should underline how valuable they are – with the right mentor, with the right class of fellow students reading and peer-critiquing, and suitable inspiration it can have incredible results – with a bit of luck. Glen David Golds debut here earns every one of its cover quotes; Addictive (Guardian), Electrifying (Independent), Magnificent (Charles Pallister), Magical (Independent on Sunday, yes I groaned at the pun pre-reading), Extraordinary (Daily Telegraph). It is all of them, and more than everything earns that description of magical. The writing is as magical as the characters and events described.
Charles Carter (‘the Great’ as he is proclaimed by Houdini in the novel) is a thoroughly likeable chap who finds tricks and illusions more readily understandable than the magic of stocks and bonds that his father and brother practice. This love affair with music sees him skip college, travel the world as a bit part ‘Kard and Koin’ man on a vaudeville show and eventually graduate to headline act before the real drama even gets going featuring cannons, murder, Presidential assassinations (x2), fallen women, blind persons dogs, Lions that roar on command, vanishing elephants, pirates, prohibition and discoveries that could change the course of the world (fought over by Radio executives on one side seeing money, Military men on the other seeing conquest, and Charles Carter seeing a neat trick). The book is fiction, inspired by real life, and it does what all great fiction and magic does – it disguises the point where reality ends and illusion begins. I’m not ashamed to say I kept googling events!
The author evokes a time of wonder and change transitioning from a period when travelling fairs were still largely animal fairs (slowly becoming rides and skill stalls) to the arrival of radio and dawn of television which the book takes as one of its three main plots. This sees the plots get so wrapped up and convoluted that you would doubt a magician could escape let alone the author but this is one trick Glen David Gold does with aplomb and he had me wanting to applaud aloud at his final chapters.
For a book to truly resonate with me it has to have a point – it has to say something meaningful by its final page and one line, a few paragraphs from conclusion did just this for me;
“There were never moments in your life when you actually saw something end, for whether you knew it or not something else was always flowering. Never a disappearance, always a transformation.”
Any person who reflects back on their life will see the truth in these words. I find myself in my own time of flux going from the end of studies into a life of work teaching but must acknowledge its not as clear as that as I began cover teaching whilst still training, and had stories published whilst doing both. So no part of my life had a hard end and abrupt beginning (besides my birth). You can apply that passage to good writing – character development should be a transformation over the passage of many pages not a sudden change. Look at the chronologically earliest chapter of this book and you find a boy completely different to the almost heroic, world worn magician at the end.
In closing I highly recommend this debut novel – many a night I’ve been nudged by a grumpy sleepy partner wanting me to turn out the light after I’d become engrossed in reading for hours – and will myself be looking to pick up Glen David Golds second novel Sunnyside featuring 800 Charlie Chaplin’s. A sample chapter is in the back of the edition of Carter Beats the Devil that I read.
Read this book and pass it on. Take Carter The Great – Everywhere! (cookie to the person who explains that reference).
P.S. Rumor has it that Johnny Depp is being courted to play the film version. This I would absolutely love.