Book review: Alex Stone’s ‘Fooling Houdini’


The Details

Fooling Houdini
Two and a half stars
By Alex Stone, $27

Alex Stone’s Fooling Houdini isn’t as bad as professional magicians would have you believe. Magicians are treating the book like a failed academic text, but Fooling Houdini is Seven Days in the Art World for magic—a whirlwind tour through the landscape of modern conjuring. And, to his credit, Stone possesses the most crucial characteristic a tour guide can have: The ability to describe things with flair.

Whether discussing Jeff McBride’s Magic & Mystery School or Hollywood’s Magic Castle, Stone descriptions are fun, varied, and vivid. “The leader of the group,” writes Stone, “a chubby alpha nerd in a black skullcap, flaunted a move in which stacks of cards formed intersecting geometric patterns that resembled an M. S. Escher illusion.” Infinitely better than what I’d have come up with (“A bunch of geeks in the corner were doing weird card tricks for each other”).

Some magicians take issue with his Stone’s exaggerations. For instance, Stone calls performing at the Greek Isles a “career-making contract.” I’ve got five or six friends on my iPhone contact list who, from personal experience, would beg to differ. But I’m okay with Stone’s overstatements. Fooling Houdini is a memoir, and memoirists exaggerate. Comes with the territory.

Magicians also feel that Stone revealed too many secrets. But I think he was respectful to magic throughout. As a magician, the book didn’t disappoint me. As a writer, it did. Specifically, I was disappointed by Stone’s never-ending parade of clichés. Not clichés of words, but the clichés of thought.

Stone cites the studies I’ve seen cited a billion times (e.g., Simons’ invisible gorilla) and he uses the magic- and card-related quotes I’ve heard quoted a billion times, like Arthur C. Clarke’s bit about advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic.

Sometimes Stone can’t even get the cliché out without breaking its momentum. Instead of writing, “According to an old saying, if you look around the table and don’t see a sucker, the sucker is you,” Stone writes, “If you look around the table and don’t see a sucker, then, according to an old saying, the sucker is you.”

When a writer uses this many unoriginal thoughts, I have trouble believing anything he says. Stone writes, “Within hours of landing [in Vegas], I’d eaten at Burger King, scarfed down a Cinnabon with extra frosting, lost fifty bucks at craps, and purchased an Ed Hardy T-shirt.”

First of all, the whole “getting swept up in Vegas’ culture of excess” bit is cliché, too. Second of all, I don’t believe that Stone really did get swept up in it. Even if he did buy the Hardy shirt, he only did it so he could say that he bought the shirt in the book. In other words, Stone didn’t write the “within hours” sentence because he actually got swept up in Vegas’ culture; he wrote it because he thought, “This is what a memoirist should say when describing landing in Las Vegas.”

Same goes for the book as a whole. Except for the wonderful descriptions, the whole thing feels expected.


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