Magic, as performed by trained magicians, is such a simple thing. Wave one's hand and voilà!, something happens. A rabbit out of a hat, a levitating body, saws pass through an assistant locked in a box without any damage done. Marvels that astound us and make us want to see more, while all the while, there are but series of meticulously crafted illusions designed to make us look the other way, to be distracted from considering what really is taking place.
Daniel Wallace, author of Mr. Sebastian and the Magic Magician, for the most part pulls off a literary sleight of hand in his fourth novel. This story of a fading magician, Henry Walker, who was rumored to have inherited his gifts from the Devil himself might at first or even third glance read like an updated Southern version of a Faustian bargain, with freak shows and carny barkers standing in for princes and alchemists. But this tale is much more than just a simple tragedy.
As the story opens, it is 1954 and poor Henry Walker, this "Negro magician," is too all appearances, completely and utterly inept. Cards fall from his sleeves at the wrong time, rabbits and birds die in their concealed compartments, and his female assistant almost dies as the saws do start cutting into her. But he is there in the rural South, a Negro claiming he can do magic, and the white Southerners are enjoying every last failure he can conjure up for them. But for some, this is not enough.
But tonight there were other forces at work. Usually his audiences were composed of simple people who came to be entertained, and at this moment, at night in a small tent at a sideshow fair filled with freaks and weirdos and the concatenation of life's refuse, who didn't love the unmagical Negro? Most did. They loved him the way you love a three-legged dog, even though they were in northern Alabama now, not far from the spot where some genius got the idea for the Ku Klux Klan. People down here had a different way of looking at things. No, he wouldn't be welcome in my home, and if he looks at my daughter I'm going to have to kill him. But, sure, he can show me a magic trick. I reckon that'll be all right. Tonight, though, Henry felt the tent choking with real hatred and a malevolent kind of hunger that could not be quelled by anything except its own satisfaction.
This poor figure of an inept Negro parading around as a magician is just too tempting for a band of racists who want to humiliate him further. One of them, Tarp, interrupts Henry's act and seizes a fallen card, only to have it backfire on him due to a simple failure to realize that a deck of magician's cards are by design different than regular decks of cards. This only serves to enrage Tarp and his buddies and they ambush Henry later, before being stopped by the so-called World's Strongest Man, Rudy. He prevents them for a time from attacking Henry and proceeds to tell them a story about how Henry was once much greater than what he now appears to be. Rudy speaks of a rumor of Henry being gifted by the Devil himself with real magic, with the power to cause objects to transform and even the power to bring the dead back to life. It is from here that Rudy's tale will dovetail into recollections from other sideshow performers.
In each of these tales, certain elements reappear in their narratives of Henry's life (as he told it to them over a period of four years in drunken rambling stories that may or may not be true at heart) from the Depression up to 1954: a lonely childhood; with only a single sister, Hannah, to love and to support; a deal with the Devil, whom Henry claims appeared to him as a truly white-faced man calling himself Mr. Sebastian; and Hannah's tragic disappearance soon afterwards.
As these tales are told, more layers are revealed about Henry's life. We learn how his past and his present are not exactly what they seem. We see how he relates with his co-workers and with others. We sense the marks of loss and of suffering behind each display of magic. And all of these wonderful feats of magic only serve as yet another concealing mirror.
I will not reveal the trick, but instead will just say that I was left marveling about how Wallace manages to make these "freaks" appear to be so humane and sympathetic, not to mention about how what Henry actually experiences is much, much more than just a Faustian deal gone sour.
Some people might find the narrative tricks employed to be a bit thin and wearisome at the end, but I ended up appreciating the effort put into making the trick into magic. Even a simulacrum of life serves to bring to memory life as one believes it to be, and through all the pain and misery and tragedy that underlies Henry's magical career, there is still a light that shines through. The best magic shown to us reveals not the workings of a life, but the image of life that we want to see. Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician displays this in all its heartbreaking beauty.
Summary: Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician is a tale about an apparent failed Negro magician and the tragedies of his life after an apparent deal with the Devil, who appears to him in the guise of a white-faced man named Mr. Sebastian. Told by his sideshow co-workers, the story utilizes several PoVs to illustrate a composite portrait of Henry Walker that is as much of an illusion as the tricks he aims to perform for his audience at the beginning of the novel. Mixed in with a tragic tale of loss and of not finding what one has bargained to gain from life, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician puts a softer, more sympathetic spin on the Faustian bargain, neither taking Marlowe's or Goethe's approach to this ancient legend of a diabolical deal gone bad. The writing is done well, with enough false climaxes and surprising plot developments to enchant most readers. Recommended for those who enjoy a tale that is not as simple as it appears.
Release Date: July 3, 2007 (US) Hardcover