Avant-cards: Tom Gagnon by Wesley James
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2012)
At the first New York Magic Symposium in New York City, circa 1982, I stepped up to the bar to order a beer, and got to talking with the guy standing next to me. After a bit, he showed me a rather exotic card-and-coin move. I commented that it looked similar to something I'd read in a book that had come out the previous year, Sleightly Original by someone named Tom Gagnon. "It should," my drinking companion smiled. "I'm Tom Gagnon."
Tom Gagnon had illustrated that book himself, and his work as an illustrator would also end up gracing the pages of important books including three volumes of the Vernon Chronicles, by Stephen Minch, The Card and Coin Magic of Larry Jennings and The Commercial Card Magic of J.C. Wagner, both by Mike Maxwell, and many other titles.
It's been awhile since Mr. Gagnon's original sleight-of hand creations have risen above the underground, where his name has been consistently entrenched for many years. But now, after years of preparation, Wesley James has written a new volume of Mr. Gagnon's excellent and exotic card work. This is not technique for the casual practitioner. But if you enjoy expert thinking and expert practice in the realm of close-up sleight-of-hand with playing cards, then Avant-Cards is the most fun book of card magic to arrive in some time.
Most of Mr. Gagnon's technique is designed to be done seated at a table and on an appropriate working surface. If you're comfortable with those conditions and you like to practice, you will find much in the pages of this book not only to interest and challenge you, but with which you will fool people so hard, you might want to get certified for CPR before trying it out on innocent humans.
The book consists of eight chapters, and their subtitles provide a succinct overview of the contents and its nature: Gagnon's Spread Pass; Versatile Spread Control; Ribbon Spread Forces: Gagnon Spread Control: Lateral Bottom Deals; Outward Bottom Deals; Bilateral Bottom Deals; and a closing eighth chapter dubbed "Potpourri." Mr. Gagnon approaches these sleights as utility tools, and he explores each technique thoroughly, exploiting its strengths in order to accomplish a wide variety of clear, distinctive, imaginative and magical effects. The Spread Pass is just that, a tabled Shift that takes place as one collects a deck that has been ribbon-spread across the close-up pad. It requires practice and precision to execute, but it is not an out-of reach knuckle-buster. The author goes on to explore the sleight in many variant forms and with a variety of applications, in both method and effect. On the method side, the sleight can be adapted to secretly transfer cards from the bottom to the top (as per Erdnase, and similarly, the inspiration for the Vernon Double Undercut), to the secret placement of a key card, and for use as a force, as just a few of many examples.
In the section on the Gagnon Spread Control another tabled technique applications are offered to a wide variety of effects, from the Ambitious Card to the Elevator Cards plot (in this latter case, with a Technicolor twist). There is a wealth of magic in this section that makes the techniques worthy of study. The Lateral Bottom Deal can certainly be regarded as a utility tool as well, and again, the author provides a variety of clever material to which to apply his inventive work, from Ace cutting routines to pseudo gambling deals.
In short, we don't see this kind of material often these days, but if you're even the slightest bit interested in this kind of fare, Tom Gagnon's thinking and technique, along with the caliber of his illustrations and the quality of these thorough descriptions, will put them within the reach of many who might previously have been reticent to address such elegant sleight of hand. Avant-Cards is the kind of book that doesn't come around very often, and I recommend you get your hands on it while it's here, and then try those hands on something new, challenging, fun, and ultimately amazing.