canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Houdini’s Shadow
by Leo Brent Robillard
Turnstone Press 2006

Reviewed by Michael Murphy

The act of reading is a bit like being taken in by a game of Three Card Monty. The analogy might seem cheap, but bear with me. The author sets up a cardboard box, pulls out a worn deck of cards and starts shuffling. Characters, settings, dialogue. The reader walks past the author, sees the set-up and plays along. Who knows why – maybe she’s bored, or maybe he has twenty dollars to blow. That’s perhaps the main difference between your average street gambler and your average reader: the reader, unlike the gambler, wants to be deceived. So we trust our authors to be good thieves, and reward them in kind.

In Houdini’s Shadow, Leo Brent Robillard attempts his own sleight of hand with the story of Jake O’Sullivan, a young man possessed by a fatal childhood fascination with Harry Houdini. After seeing one of Houdini’s 1912 performances in New York City, Jake realises that to “escape – to tempt death – is to live. Is to understand existence.” While it’s hard to believe that someone as young as Jake could come to such a substantial realisation, it becomes clear that he does not simply wish to escape from sealed milk containers, or unlock the chains around his wrists at the bottom of the St. Lawrence. Rather, he hopes to escape from his past, the failures of his pugilistic father, the failures of his own life as he grows into a young man, clinging helplessly to his dream of becoming a famous escape artist.

Houdini’s Shadow, though plausible in its depiction of Jake’s gradual adoption of the bootlegger lifestyle in the days of the depression, ultimately suffers from a case of Hollywoodism. Rather than build his characters, breathe life into their actions, Robillard keeps them two-dimensional and monochrome, as flat as a projector screen. Take Lulu, for example, a mysterious damsel in distress, whom the narrator describes as “an exotic pet”. She wants to be a film star. Jake meets her through his boss, a greedy small-time gangster named Israel whose only weakness is his love for mysterious women. And then there is the mysterious woman’s “friend,” a suspicious young boy whose own secrets seem silly and cheap when revealed. Although Robillard’s prose is trim and precise, the steady flow of clichés makes the book seem longer than 176 pages. Through each of Jake’s failures, the reader remains committed to the text, hoping for a plot twist that never truly arrives. Or, at least, when it does arrive, it fails to arouse any sense of surprise or satisfaction.

That being said, Robillard has a few tricks up his sleeve. Interspersing Jake’s story with historical vignettes of Houdini’s life and career fleshes out the tension between past and present, success and failure. Although Jake seems condemned to fail, like Houdini, he also knows a thing or two about tempting and even defeating death. In this book, the historical and the fictional, the real and the illusory, come together in a performance one might call deceptive – in a good way.

Nevertheless, if the act of reading is anything like a game of Three Card Monty, Robillard’s moves are not quite as deft or subtle as they could be. One feels, at times, that he forgot to flip the cards over. When reading Houdini’s Shadow, it’s easy to start feeling that whenever this dealer stops shuffling, you’ll know exactly where each card lies. While there is a hollow pleasure in seeing through the set-up, in lifting the right card, in claiming the proper ace, unfortunately, in this case, you don’t make your money back.

Michael Murphy lives in Windsor, Ontario. His work has appeared in filling Station, The Windsor Review and The Danforth Review.






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