August 19, 2009
No New Tricks
I love the actor/magician Ricky Jay, not least for his terrific supporting turn in the first season of Deadwood (understated on a show where nobody was understated). I resisted reading an old New Yorker profile of Jay when John Gruber at Daring Fireball linked to it earlier in the week, even after linking to an interview Jay gave Errol Morris about deception and talking up Jay’s history of magicians and irregular stage entertainers Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women (JG: “simply one of the best books I’ve read in years”). But then Jason Kottke linked to it too, and I was done.
Part of the charm is that Jay isn’t just a magician, but also a storyteller, a physical specimen (throwing playing cards through watermelons, that sort of thing), and a scholar, historian, and collector of magical books, stories, and ephemera. David Mamet tells a good anecdote:
“I’ll tell him I’m having a Fourth of July party and I want to do some sort of disappearance in the middle of the woods. He says, ‘That’s the most bizarre request I’ve ever heard. You want to do a disappearing effect in the woods? There’s nothing like that in the literature. I mean, there’s this one 1760 pamphlet—’Jokes, Tricks, Ghosts and Diversions by Woodland, Stream and Campfire.’ But, other than that, I can’t think of a thing.’ He’s unbelievably generous. Ricky’s one of the world’s great people. He’s my hero. I’ve never seen anybody better at what he does.”
The profile, by Mark Singer, is not uniform - it lulls in places, and then snaps back to attention, kind of like a good magic trick. But there are perfect things in it, like this:
“I’m always saying there’s no correlation between gambling and magic,” Jay said as he shuffle-cut the cards. “But this is a routine of actual gamblers’ techniques within the context of a theatrical magic presentation.”
He noticed me watching him shuffling, and asked softly, with deadpan sincerity, “Does that look fair?”
When I said it looked fair, he dealt two hands of five-card draw and told me to lay down my cards. Two pair. Then he laid down his. A straight.
“Was that fair?” he said. “I don’t think so. Let’s discuss the reason why that wasn’t fair. Even though I shuffled openly and honestly, I didn’t let you cut the cards. So let’s do it again, and this time I’ll let you cut the cards.”
It goes on like this for a while, with Jay apparently giving up more and more control over the deck with each iteration, until finally Jay says:
“Now, this time you shuffle the cards and you deal the cards. And you pick the number of players. And you designate any hand for me and any hand for you.”
After shuffling, I dealt four hands, arranged as the points of a square. I chose a hand for myself and selected one for him. My cards added up to nothing—king-high nothing.
“Is that fair?” Jay said, picking up his cards, waiting a beat, and returning them to the table, one by one—the coup de grâce. “I. Don’t. Think. So.” One, two, three, four aces.
Later, Singer asks Jay about a rumor that he had once played cards for a living.
“Would anybody play cards with you today?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. “Silly people.”
I’ll also reproduce, because I can’t help it, the catalog of reviews Singer gives of Jay’s Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women:
Reviewing “Learned Pigs” in the Times, John Gross wrote, “One effect of Mr. Jay’s scholarship is to make it clear that even among freaks and prodigies there is very little new under the sun. Show him a stone-eater or a human volcano or an enterologist and he will show you the same thing being done before, often hundreds of years earlier.” In the Philadelphia Inquirer Carlin Romano wrote, “ ‘Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women’ is a book so magnificently entertaining that if a promoter booked it into theatres and simply distributed a copy to each patron to read, he’d have the hit of the season.” A blurb on the jacket from Penn and Teller says, “It’s the coolest book . . . and probably the most brilliantly weird book ever.” Jay wrote much of “Learned Pigs” while occupying a carrel in the rare-book stacks of the Clark Library, at U.C.L.A. At one point, Thomas Wright, a librarian at the Clark and a former professor of English literature, tried to persuade him to apply for a postdoctoral research fellowship. When Jay explained that he didn’t have a doctorate, Wright said, “Maybe a master’s degree would be sufficient.”
“Thomas, I don’t even have a B.A.”
Wright replied, “Well, you know, Ricky, a Ph.D. is just a sign of docility.”