Variations Revisited by Earl Nelson
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2003)
I've already mentioned Earl Nelson's 1978 book, Variations. If you know Earl Nelson or have ever seen him work, you know that everything he does in the name of conjuring and I do mean everything-is done with a purpose. Even the deceptively simple tide of this book was chosen similarly, I'm sure to make a statement consistent with Mr. Nelson's unassuming, soft-spoken style. He wasn't inclined to beat his breast and make grand claims in his own name. He was content if he could put out a polite little book of modest, if worthy well, variations.
That he did, and another cult classic was born. The foreword was written by no less than Dai Vernon himself, who referred to Mr. Nelson as "one of the very best." While Vernon may have often been generous with brief praise, this was not generosity it was truth. Mr. Nelson was a presence in The Magic Castle scene in its heyday, and while he might not have been well known outside of Los Angeles circles when this book first saw print, in the 24 years since he has deservedly taken his place as one of the true masters of intimate sleight-of-hand magic of our time. If you never had the chance to see Mr. Nelson's remarkable set in the Pavilion at the now at-long-last-defunct Caesars Magical Empire, you missed one of the finest examples of pure sleight-of-hand artistry you could ever hope to see. Within minutes of watching Earl Nelson perform, you (and everyone else in the audience, magician or not) know one thing for certain: Earl Nelson is an artist.
And Variations was a great way to introduce him to many of us way back when ... when sessions were rife with versions of Paul Harris "Reset" (actually a popularized variant of Bro. John Hamman's "Underground Transposition"), and Alex Elmsley's "Point of Departure" and "Between Your Palms," the "Color-Changing Deck," and the venerable sandwich plot. There were two routines of Ace revelations that still stand far, far beyond most such routines created before or since. Try these two routines out and think about them carefully, and see if you can't perceive the difference between such substantial fare and the far more numerous approaches available which seem to serve little purpose ocher than to get someone's name in print.
Mr. Nelson provided us with approaches that weren't just variations for the heck of it, but rather were variations, as already mentioned, with a purpose. Enough purpose and thinking, in fact, that the book was passed around and talked about and pored over in countless sessions and conversations for years to come, until copies became virtually unobtainable.
And it wasn't just the variations of those popular card plots. There was a section on coins that led off with the modestly titled "Pretty Good Coins Across." (It's better than pretty good.) That was followed by four routines that combined cards and coins, a reflection of the fascination of the time with the "Matrix" plot, as well as the influence of Jerry Andrus' incredibly deceptive (but virtually unseen today) "Miser's Miracle." There was a section of magic with finger rings that included two ring-off-string penetrations that remain absolute standards of the form today.
As if that wasn't enough, Mr. Nelson has provided a small chapter of "new material," consisting of five new technical items plus a welcome if all-too-brief chapter of opinion and commentary. The stand-out of this section is Tony Miller's "Miller Variable Placement" or MVP for short, which first appeared in Apocalypse in 1991. Mr. Nelson came upon it a few years ago and has fooled countless numbers of card men with it, including your humble reviewer. When you see the photos of the basic mechanics, you may be inclined to dismiss this as the kind of thing you've seen before but never quite works well enough to justify its use. Looking for a new card control to work on that's worth the practice? This is it I promise.
And speaking of the photos, the 200 or so line drawings in the original edition have now been replaced with 270 beautiful photographs by Bill Taylor. This book is produced in a sort of companion design with the new edition of Versatile Card Magic, in a somewhat oversized format that remains open on the table, with silver foil stamped blue cloth covers (which is consistent with the original design of the Simon book) and handsome glossy full color dust jackets. They make an attractive pair.
There is a seeming simplicity to this book that, like Mr. Nelson's own work and performance, is deceptive and in effect misleading. This is a book of tricks and sleights, presented in a straightforward way, with little puffery and promotion, little fanfare or marketing or salesmanship. It's just there, as if to say, "Here's a little something you might find of interest." But in the face of magic magazines ads with screaming endorsements and claims even wilder than the colors of the print, with the next best thing available via instant video internet download seconds after you provide your credit card number for the secure transaction well, in the face of all that noise and bluster, the simple elegant voice of this book is a soothing balm of sorts. This is the kind of book that you don't want to tear through, rip the most obvious meat off the bone, and leave the rest for the scavengers on the dung heap of eBay. Rather, this is a book you want to curl up with, under comfortable lighting with a deck of cards in hand and some jazz in the background, to give yourself the best opportunity to savor its subtleties and Flair. And then, if you're thoughtful enough, and careful enough, and appreciative enough, you get to go out and murder laymen with what you've learned.