In “Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks and the Hidden Powers of the Mind,’’ Alex Stone takes us inside the world of Vegas illusionists, shady three-card monte dealers on Lower Manhattan’s Canal Street, and seemingly perfect card tricks. Stone, a former editor at Discover Magazine who left his job to get a master’s degree in physics from Columbia University, developed an interest in magic from an early age thanks to his father, who was a fan. The book picks up at the 2006 World Championships of Magic in Stockholm. A nervous Stone flubs his act, humiliating himself and sparking a brief retreat from the world of magic.
But he can’t stay away long. “Fooling Houdini’’ traces his path to restoring his confidence and repairing his act, taking us along the way through contemporary magic at every level, from old-timer legends hanging out in dusty Manhattan pizza joints to elite magic classes and conventions in locales from Vegas to Lima. Stone does this all while juggling (with frequent drops) his course load at Columbia and often failing to have a normal adult social life.
Stone has a gift for portraying the many eccentric characters who populate the magic scene, as well as the social dynamics that govern it. “I found Wes at Rustico II,” he writes of a local legend who would become a mentor of sorts, “sitting at the head of the table, a fisher king flanked by his disciples, some of whom I recognized. To his left was Bob Friedhoffer, a foul-mouthed Brooklyn magician who uses magic to teach science to kids. Friedhoffer looked like a bloated George Carlin, a short, stout fireplug of a man with thin strands of silver hair slicked back in a tight ponytail. Woolly tufts of chest fuzz sprouted Chia-like from under his polo shirt, and his breathing sounded effortful. He was what you might call a Darth breather.”
In addition to the many colorfully drawn, flamboyant characters, the book manages to grab and hold the reader’s attention, despite an abundance of nerdy subject matter throughout (when Stone isn’t hanging out with magicians he’s hanging out with scientists). The book explains the underpinnings of countless sorts of tricks, taking us from the wonders of the human hand to the potent psychology behind the “cold-reading” that makes mediums seem like mediums. The narrative is compelling because it comes veined with a very human question: What is truth?
That may sound too philosophical for such a fun memoir, but when Stone invokes this question it comes across as pitch perfect. At one point, he reflects on the difference between the deception it takes to create an enjoyable act and the much more questionable sort employed by the likes of controversial TV medium John Edward. Later on, he realizes that while there is a near-infinite array of types of tricks he could employ in his act, most of them don’t fit his personality. For his act to come across as authentic and true, he realizes, it needs to come from a place he knows: the language of mathematics. This is how he decides to put together a showstopping card trick that has some rather sophisticated math behind it.
“Fooling Houdini’’ sits firmly in the subgenre of A.J. Jacobs’s “The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World’’ and Ethan Gilsdorf’s “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks’’ — tales about a certain breed of funny, nerdy, highly literate man explaining his obsessions. And like these books, it quickly draws you in, making you suddenly care about a subject to which you might not have given five seconds of thought before you started to read.