Jay's Journal of Anomalies by Ricky Jay
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2002)
Around the time you will be reading this, Ricky Jay will be opening his newest live show in New York City. Although we in the magic community have been aware of Mr. Jay's proclivities far several decades now, of late he seems to be inching himself ever more frequently into the public's view, not only as purveyor of card tricks, but also as film actor (to the mystification of some, no doubt, although he seems to acquit himself better than ever in the recent film, The Heist, written and directed by longtime Jay associate, David Mamet). Now, with his third book, Mr. Jay reminds the world not only that he reads books—as is often his wont in his live performances—but that he also writes them.
Although, as the title suggests, this material actually first saw print in journal form. Jay's Journal of Anomalies was born with its first issue dated "Spring, 1994," as a quarterly journal, and the final and sixteenth issue concluded the series some time in 2000. The annual subscription price was a steep $90, which served to limit the circulation to a reported tally of about 500 readers at its zenith. According to the author's "afterword," the journal was intended to "do justice to materials collected over long years in (his) areas of interest—conjuring, unusual entertainments, confidence games, the biographies of eccentric characters." The journal was also exquisitely produced, luxuriously illustrated with items from Mr. Jay's remarkable personal collection, rich with multi-color artwork and glossy fold-outs, and the book retains the original's expansive design and production values.
Each of the 16 issues focuses on a particular subject, most as odd as any other. Some of these include performing dogs who apparently did math and answered questions on a variety of intellectual subjects (shades of "learned pigs"); huge humans; the Bonassus and other fraudulent beasts (the name and promotional claims of the Bonassus' exhibitors were fraudulent, while the animal was actually a specimen of the ubiquitous American bison); trained flea circuses; genuine crucifixions (as entertainment, natch!); cheating at bowling; extreme fasting (or at least, claims of same); nose amputations and similar effects of disfigurement; and professional makers of faces—i.e., those who entertain via their physiognomy.
Unsurprisingly, there are many subjects that much upon the world of magic and magicians, including the issue on nose amputations; accounts of an infamous crucifixion that took place at an Abbott's Get-Together; an issue about the celebrated 18th-century conjuror, Isaac Fawkes; an opening reference to Matthew Buchinger in the bowling issue; an issue about dental matters that touches upon the bullet catch and concludes with an anecdote about T. Nelson Downs; an issue about the Aztec Lilliputians, a pair of unfortunates who were a pro-motional attraction of John Henry Anderson's, a.k.a. The Wizard of the North; an issue about the effect of suspension; and an issue (which opens with a quote from Dai Vernon) about the famous chess-playing automaton—among other mentions. All these subjects are dealt with in Mr. Jay's typical mix of scholarship (every issue is extensively foot-noted) mixed with wry sesquipedalian wordsmithery. The author has also used the gathering of this material into book form as an opportunity to add what is in essence one additional complete issue, the afore-mentioned "afterword," which permits him to address errors, absences, expansions, corrections from readers, and to accompany all this with the addition of yet another sheaf of marvelous illustrative materials.
It is clear that Mr. Jay is fascinated with these subjects and possesses an extraordinary depth of knowledge. He often seems to harbor more affection for the unusual events and bizarre details than for the actual individuals described, but this may simply be a function of the distance afforded by the view from his ironic perch. There are certainly insights to be had here about the human condition at large as well as about subjects of particular interest to the conjuring community, and the price is truly a bargain when one considers the remarkable physical attributes of this volume. Truly, anyone who receives this as a gift will be fascinated and delighted—even if you bestow it upon yourself.