Magic Words by Gerald Kolpan
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2012)
I've never been much of a fan of fiction that utilizes conjuring as a narrative element. Writers seize on magic as a symbol or a device with little insight into its actual workings or meanings, for that matter and realities
are quickly trampled underfoot of a story teller’s stampeding purposes. Robertson Davies “Deptford Trilogy” is a
fine read but its depiction of its magician protagonist, Magnus Eisengrim, is about as believable as that of the comic book hero, Mandrake the Magician. But magicians have been a part of modern historical fiction at least
since Houdini appeared in E.l. Doctorow’s seminal text, Ragtime, and indeed that magician manages at least
a mention in the pages of Gerald Kolpan’s new book. One standout example of magic-related fiction however is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, which invokes performance magic in both believable and uniquely metaphorical ways. Gerald Kolpan’s Magic Words bears relationship on several levels to Chabon’s masterwork, in that not only does it concern itself with magic and magicians amid its many subjects and characters, but both books are works of historical fiction, and both concern themselves with the Jewish diaspora.
If one of Mr. Kolpan’s agents ever tries to sell the book in Hollywood, he need only declare by way of high concept pitch that the story is “Cowboys and Indians and Jews!” (One is tempted to add, “Oh my!” to complete the poetry.) The foundation of the tale lies in two historical characters: Julius Meyer, who immigrates to the united States as a boy alongside Alexander Herrmann, the adult aspiring magician. Although according to the author there is so me kind of slight evidence that the two were related in real life, for purposes of his story Mr. Kolpan has chosen to fictionally elevate their connection to that of cousins. Alexander of course went on to became the most famous magician of his time in America, even eclipsing the fame of his elder brother, Compars; Julius Meyer is an unusual character who became a translator for and friend to numerous native American tribes and chiefs.
From these elements Mr. Kolpan constructs an adventure story that could rival television’s soap opera, Dallas
for intrigue and melodrama, a Sergio leone pasta Western for raw blood and guts excitement, and a Bourne or Bond movie for sheer variety of location. There are magicians and magic shows, battles between Indians and soldiers, Western towns ands saloons, prostitutes aplenty including a murderous one, a drunken psychic, a scattering of yiddish and other Jewish customs (including a drink of what my grandmother used to call a “glezl tay,” which is to say a drinking glass of tea with a sugar cube in it), and far more, upholding a lively storytelling tradition not entirely unlike the pulp novels enthusiastically sold and read by some of the story’s characters.
As history, the setting is particularly captivating, providing an evocative background of what life was like in the
era of the post-Civil War Western expansion. And the story of the defeat and borderline extermination of native American tribes—a genocide on American soil—is not only historically accurate (including rather restrained descriptions of the infamous “Trail of Tears” forced march that decimated the ranks of its suffering walkers), but makes explicit metaphorical comparison to the history of the Jews and, in the context of the book’s time frame, the coming genocide of the Third Reich.
As the character of Julius Meyer, who becomes an advocate for native Americans, says, “If the Indian surrenders, they say he is craven a coward with no stomach for battle. If he fights, he is a beast, said to drink the blood of his victims. Where have we heard that before?” As magic history there is little to be relied on here, as much of the story of the Herrmann brothers is concocted into a sibling rivalry of monstrous and evil proportion. And of course every prop a magician touches here is produced at the fingertips or plucked from the air, as if no magician in history ever simply took a coin from his pocket or lifted a prop from a side table but such is the hyperbole native to the form. So those familiar with the actual history will no doubt find moments of the tale downright risible.
However, in an online video the author comments that above all he likes and tries to write “a good, ripping yarn,” and indeed that is what he has done. I shrugged my shoulders at the nonsense invoked in the name of magic; my humanity sagged in the face of the heartbreak and horror of the worst of human excess. But I also laughed aloud more than a few times, cried at least once, and these metrics speak to the author as having at least achieved his fundamental goal.