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The Book of Secrets: Lessons for Progressive Conjuring by John Carney

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2003)


John Carney is a man with impeccable conjuring credentials. Hailing from Des Moines, Iowa, Mr. Carney was fortunate enough to fall under the guiding hand of Faucets Ross, long-time friend and colleague of Dai Vernon. Later in his youth, Mr. Carney relocated to Los Angeles to study under the tutelage of Vernon himself. In the 1980s he won accolades in numerous circles, including a current total of six awards from The Magic Castle (the only magician to have won in four categories), and com-petition prizes that included two FISM awards. He has released his share of videos, both instructional and performance-only, that have invariably been a cut above the pack for cleverness and entertainment value. Then in 1983 he published his first major entry into the literature of conjuring, Carney Knowledge, which has been followed over the years by other invariably interesting manuscripts and journal contributions, reaching a climax of sorts with his remarkable 1991 hard-cover volume, Carneycopia, written by Stephen Minch, and easily one of the 10 best books of the decade.

Others in magic could present resumes that may, on the surface of it, appear similarly impressive. But these credits do little to capture an accurate sense of Mr. Carney's prodigious talents. His work as a close-up sleight-of-hand artist is impeccable, and matched by few for his combined skills of misdirection, routining, performance, and sheer, raw, technical muscle. But he has also established himself over the years in several forms of magic on stage, including as a comedy club worker, a platform and parlor performer (again featuring exquisite and sophisticated sleight-of-hand material), and most recently having achieved significant renown as the character of Mr. Mysto, the self-important buffoon whom Mr. Carney claims as an altar ego (and who was the subject of a Genii cover story in April 1999), but is of course the personage who simply suffers from every hateful characteristic we loathe amid our conjuring community and occasionally within our-selves. And Mr. Carney is also a trained actor, having appeared in numerous television spots and commercials, and if you doubt his abilities as a comic actor, then you must have tragically!—missed his outstanding appearances as the absolute starring comic performer in two of the historical sketches recreated in recent years at the Los Angeles Conference on Magical History.

And if that curriculum vitae begins to make an impression upon you, I will add that the most remarkable and amazing facet of Mr. Carney's life in magic may just be the fact that he is not nearly as revered a figure among the general magician population as he should be—a mystery that his many fans and supporters can only wonder at, and bemoan. Make no mistake, he has obviously received no small measure of attention. And be further assured that among the cognoscenti of magic, all recognize him for what he is: a magician's magician par excellence, with few artistic peers.

I mention these facts not to solicit sympathy, but rather to point out a thought that may be worth considering: namely that it is the very nature of Mr. Carney's greatest strengths that has contributed to his occasionally ill-appreciated status. It may be that his inherent soft-spoken modesty and distaste for self-promotion has been a factor; it is not his nature to puff up his chest and then bash it, ape-like, and declare his place at the table. It may be that his unerring mastery of misdirection serves to effectively conceal his extraordinary "chops" not only from laymen, but from many magicians as well. And it may be that his exquisitely tasteful selection of material not just cards and coins but beautiful conjuring with general objects along with the distinctive mix of mystery and playfulness present in his work, is nor what grabs the attention of today's magic marketplace. When you look at what sells today in magic the overt display of skill, the easy-to-master pabulum, the self-promoting puffery John Carney is the antithesis of the form. And may I suggest we bow our heads in a moment of silence to offer thanks for his very presence?

Perhaps all that will change with this phenomenal new book—perhaps. Carney Knowledge was a fine book; Carneycopia a great book. The Book of Secrets is a masterpiece. The entire day I recently spent leisurely reading and soaking up the wonders of this new volume was one of the most satisfying reading experiences I have had in a very long time. This is a must-have, must-read, must re-read, top-of-the-pile, words-to-live-by, masterwork. It is the work of an honest-to-goodness artist, a man who burns with an earnest passion for his art that, combined with a depth of thought and insight that few can match, has produced a work of astonishing power. This is one of the most inspirational books of magic I have ever read, and as serious as is its intent, it is also inescapably joyous, thanks to the author's unadulterated, unbridled, unapologetic love for his subject.

The Book of Secrets consists, following a foreword by Jim Steinmeyer and the author's introduction, of 33 entries, which take several different forms. Ten of these segments are labeled "Legends," being as they are brief, two-page meditations on some of Mr. Carney's heroes in magic, including names that should be known to every worthy student: de Kolta, Vernon, Slydini, Robert Houdin, Hofzinser, Devant, Kaps, Baker, and Ramsay.

Another type of entry is the essay, and here Mr. Carney shines as a compelling and forthright stylist, a spokesman for his art who is frequently provocative but rarely confrontational. In the opening essay, "The Student Begins," the author presents a guided path to the study of magic, focussing not on the physical tools of mirror and prop, but rather on the mental tools necessary for a rewarding and productive course of study.

In "Hidden Gifts," Mr. Carney encourages every stu-dent to discover the creativity and sense of play that we all possess, whether or not we have been raised to believe it, or have learned how to utilize it. This is in effect a two-and-a-half-page motivational talk about creativity, and it is bound to whet most any reader's imagination. As much as this is a chapter devoted to helping the student, it is also an effective window into Mr. Carney's own mind the mind of an artist at work.

Similarly, Mr. Carney tells us much about his thoughts about himself and his role as a conjuring artist in his essay, "Art ... in Magic?" The fact that he even presents this m a question perhaps reflects his own tentativeness as he avoids at all costs the appearance of self-importance or the pomposity of Mr. Mysto. Instead, he advises us on how we might best present magic as an art to our audiences and the importance of considering the audience's needs in our work, and not merely our own. And in "Tools of the Trade," Mr. Carney matches these subtle and contemplative musings with practical direction in seeing that "the real work of great conjuring is problem solving: identifying weakness-es, accepting the challenge they present, and tenaciously seeking solutions." And he implores, cajoles, persuades pushes and pulls us along the way to do better. Mr. Carney's idea of being an artist is not tangled in ivory tower theorizing it is a way to do one's work, to make one's art, to live one's life. He observes that "Artists are inherently dissatisfied with things as they are, because they are creators. They aren't interested in what is, only in what might be."

Were this a book entirely of Mr. Carney's essays, it would already be an effective and important piece of work. But lest I present a mistaken impression, the majority of this 377-page volume is comprised of magic—of 24 close-up and platform tricks, mostly (bur not entirely) accomplished by sleight-of-hand. In "Rubbed Away," the author describes a remarkably magical vanish of a silk handkerchief, which comprises a part of a wonderfully magical routine that is a feature of Mr. Carney's current repertoire, albeit not described here in full. The method is based on that described in an interesting manuscript devoted entirely to the subject of "The Lightning Pull" which Mr. Carney released in 1997. (The contents of a similar single-subject manuscript from 1995, "Torn & Restored," is not reflected in this new book) By introducing the book with this piece, Mr. Carney demonstrates that he is as willing to rely on mechanics as he is upon sleight-of-hand, and how skilled applications ultimately serve to muddy the line between the two (one is reminded of Tommy Wonder's "Three Pillars" from The Books of Wonder, i.e., manipulation, mechanics, and psychology). He also presents his trademark range of strengths: the revitalizing of a classical concept, painstaking attention to detail, and the willingness to go the extra mile to uncompromisingly achieve the final, most desirable effect.

With regard to Mr. Carney's penchant for reviving unseen and unpopular classics, the book's second trick entry is "Just a Cigar," his delicate and delightful take on the Leipzig "Cigars From Purse," from Dai Vernon's Tribute to Nate Leipzig. If this trick has undergone some-thing of a mild renaissance in recent years, I assure you it is due entirely to Mr. Carney's ambitious retrieval of it from the dustbins of our literature. Indeed, there is more than one magician on the scene today who has made a reputation of sorts—at least in quarters inhabited by those who do not recognize the sources--by copying Mr. Carney's own selections from the classical repertoire, and ignoring the principle that even the selection of repertoire can be an act of originality. Nevertheless, here is Mr. Carney's own handling, designed for real-world application (he has solved the "management" problems of how to get in and out of the routine), and thoroughly described. This is a study in expert sleight-of-hand, an array of visual surprises in which a wood-en cigar is repeatedly removed from an impossibly small purse, along with vanishing, reappearing, and multiplying at the will of the conjuror. (You might be interested in finding some terrific props for this routine at http://woodencigars.com/)

In one of essentially two chapters devoted to technique, Mr. Carney provides a lengthy treatise on palming, a sort of self-contained primer on the subject, by explaining nine related methods. This 26-page segment is a worthy if ambitious task, which attempts to provide the reader with everything he requires in order to tackle any palming required elsewhere in the book, especially the trick which follows immediately, namely "Up My Sleeve," Mr. Carney's routine for Erdnase's version of "Cards up the Sleeve." Since Mr. Carney is certainly an expert at palming, this section is an invaluable addition to the literature on the subject; I would also recommend Michael Close's excellent material in Workers 3. I also encourage students to consult the original sources that Mr. Carney cites; having taught the Topping the Deck to many students, I have come to believe that no brief description, even Mr. Vernon's own from Select Secrets, can do complete justice to the task. Elsewhere the author addresses "The Classic Pass ... and Other Myths," in which he discusses Erdnase at interesting length, along with issues of timing, the pitfalls of "framing up" for sleights, the difference between creating an illusion and showing off one's technical prowess, and finally describing Mr. Carney's own deceptive approach to the Classic Pass. And a shorter technical entry entitled "Multiple Slip" describes a natural-appearing control of, say, four cards, without the use of the typical actions of a Multiple Shift.

Other magical routines include: "Muscade Magic," an efficient approach to the Cups and Balls, which concentrates on the visual phases and eliminates the spectator involvement segments from the Vernon routine; Dissolving Steel, two mystifying moves with the Linking Rings; "Creation of Life," the author's modern handling for the Egg on Fan, including complete instructions for properly preparing the inflating "eggs"; the "Leipzig-Skinner Surprise," one of the simpler items in the book, based upon "Leipzig's Opener" (including a cogent one-paragraph summary of why sleight-of-hand methodology is so often superior to mathematical procedures); "Forgotten Recollection," an extremely efficient if challenging method for Hofzinser's "Remember and Forget" plot, relying upon Second and Bottom deals; "Off the Vine," an impromptu and delicious—both figuratively and literally—approach to classical three-ball routines, done with grapes; "Swing Blade," a classic impromptu paddle routine from Sachs Sleight of Hand done with bits of wetted paper stuck to a table knife; "Money for Nothing," a complete routine for the Miser's Dream; and "Thimble Collection," an exquisite if challenging sleight-of-hand routine with thimbles, combined from sources including the work of John Ramsay along with the Rosini routine from The Dai Vernon Book of Magic. This is yet another routine that others have adopted after having seen Mr. Carney's version (perhaps along with the late Michael Skinner's wonderful performance of the Rosini routine).

As frustrating as it is to provide a mere laundry list of this parade of wonderment—every trick is a lesson in magic, not merely a new novelty to limp through for a few friends, and then abandon long before any hint of mastery sets in—several items all but demand special mention. "Silver and Glass" is Mr. Carney's stunning handling of Vernon's "Five Coins and Glass," and few will be able to do justice to this tour de force; if it takes a serious student six months or more of concerted effort to master such a thing, one can only begin to imagine what was required for Mr. Carney to breathe life into it from a cold start. Similarly, "Ascension" is a sort of ultimate Rising Cards, in which two cards rise from the pack while it rests in a glass, a third selection floats through the air into the performer's hand, after which the deck is passed out for shuffling by the audience, returned to the glass, where-upon the entire deck sprays into the air, leaving only the final selection behind. This is yet another post-graduate course in using all methods available to you, but the result is as deceptive in its magical effect as it is in achieving the convincing illusion of the routine's apparent simplicity. Finally, "Verbeck's Envelopes" is a little-known but impenetrable mystery in which a coin vanishes from half a page torn from a magazine; the sheet then transforms itself impossibly into a sealed envelope, made from the actual magazine page; in fact, this turns out to be the largest of a nest of three envelopes, and the coin is found in the innermost one. Incredible as this may sound, the entire effect is now instantly repeated with the second half-sheet of magazine; and at the conclusion, the six envelopes are transformed back into the original single magazine page! If the plot seems familiar to some, those who saw Ricky Jay in his recent Off-Broadway show, On the Stem, may recognize that it comprised a segment of his penultimate routine performed with a finger ring (instead of a coin).

It is no small achievement that this breathtaking quantity and caliber of magic is matched by the production values of the book. Mr. Carney is self-publishing this volume, and he has not only written it but designed it as well, along with creating the remarkable photo-graphs that accompany the text. These 262 photographs possess a unique appearance that complements the rest of the production; although they clearly are photographs, they suggest the sensibility of a 19th-century line drawing, except somehow possessing a great deal more detail. Occasionally, I did find them to be small, and would have preferred something larger to communicate more detail, especially in the few cases where props other than playing cards (like purses. or the elements of the pull) are depicted. Overall, however, they are both effective and distinctively beautiful.

Another significant design achievement is the fact that the illustrations are not numbered or keyed to the text in any coded fashion. Rather, they are carefully located, intuitively with the appropriate text, and the eye readily finds what it needs. Also, small text inserts accompany the illustrations, which expand upon rather than merely duplicate that which is in the body of the text. Another interesting if subtle design feature of this volume is that it appears not to contain so much as a single blank page. In contrast to disastrously embarrassing attempts in recent years to "reinvent the book," Mr. Carney, as is his habit and his wont, has taken the tools of the past and applied them with dedication and attention to detail. Rather than foolishly trying to reinvent the wheel, he has "simply" chosen to manufacture an exquisite example of the form.

Mr. Carney is not only self-publishing, but he has made the unusual decision to only sell the book retail, i.e., directly to consumers, solely via mail order. One can understand the many reasons for this. The economics of publishing magic books today is dismal, as much for the author as for the publisher. By marketing the book in this fashion, he may sell many fewer books than if he wholesaled the book to jobbers and retailers, bur he will likely earn as much income. However, one unhappy byproduct of this approach is that while his income may not suffer—and will in Fact likely be improved over the long run—the book will doubtless reach fewer readers. And to me, if less people get to read a book of this nature, then magic suffers for it—and perhaps in some manner the author does as well. Only time will tell.

The book is sub-titled "Lessons in Progressive Magic," and this is a meaningful label of the contents. Each chapter—be it crick or essay—concludes with a short list of questions, entitled "Your turn ..." Here he further tweaks and tugs at the reader's thought process, providing opportunities for further exploration—"How would you adapt this routine for stage?"—and paths to invention and originality—"How does the trick evolve as you change or add other props?"

While Carneycopia was a text overflowing with more than 40 items, many if not most of which could be added to any serious student's repertoire in a reasonable amount of time, The Book of Secrets is a blue-print for rich, multifaceted. sophisticated magic that will be duplicated by few, but is accompanied by a manifesto of sorts that will doubt-less inspire many. In The Book of Secrets, John Carney takes his place among the most important conjuring thinkers and practitioners of our time. He presents himself as both student and teacher, luring the reader into sharing his complex relationship with his art—his love, his sense of adventure, his struggles, his achievements. Read it, study it, learn the lessons he so generously offers—and perhaps even commit yourself to mastering just one of the orchestrations of the incredible he has included for your benefit. When I read a book like this, I am immediately filled with the desire to learn it all—but the mastery of just one item would make any one of as a much finer magician, and that is clearly the goal of this book Truly, this is a generous book—a work by which the author gives back a bounty to the are that has given him so much. Would that other masters be as generous, doing honor to their past while investing in the future beyond themselves. Be thrilled and inspired by this book, and may it help you take our are to another, better place.

367 pages • Hardcover • Foreword by Jim Steinmeyer • Available only by direct order from the publisher (Carney Magic) • Not available through dealers • 2002