Despite the international success of his part-somber, part-uplifting 2008 novel, “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” Steven Galloway has opted for a dramatic key change for his latest. “The Confabulist” (Riverhead, 304 pages, $27.95), a fun, page-turning reinterpretation of the life and death of Harry Houdini, bears closer resemblance to Galloway’s second novel, “Ascension” (2003), the tale of a daredevil live-wire artist. Both novels depict Eastern European showmen wowing audiences in America. “The Confabulist” proves more dazzling, thanks to Houdini’s enduring appeal as a man of mystery and Galloway’s bottomless box of tricks and narrative twists and turns.
The novel is woven from two strands. The main one is that of Houdini, from his humble beginnings as Ehrich Weiss to his barnstorming success as “the world’s pre-eminent magician.” We watch him learn the tricks of his trade, perform in traveling circuses and vaudeville theaters and graduate from cheap seance scams to elaborate vanishing acts. Galloway retains key players in Houdini’s life, such as his long-suffering wife and string of mistresses, but embroils his star-turn in episodes of his own devising. Houdini’s fictional scrapes include run-ins and entanglements with the Secret Service, jealous rivals, hoodlums, Russian nobility and Arthur Conan Doyle — many of whom are intent on making Houdini permanently vanish.
Galloway’s second story focuses on his narrator and eponymous confabulist. Martin Strauss is “the man who killed Harry Houdini” — and not once, but twice. It is through Strauss that Galloway performs his own, authorial tricks. His opening scene features Strauss being told by a doctor that he is losing his mind; as this happens his brain will invent new memories. Thus from the outset we are on our guard, never sure how much of what we are fed is true — or, as Strauss says, “which is material and which is a reflection.”
As we get deeper into the novel, we marvel at Galloway’s plate-spinning: the steadily unfolding cast, the effortless darting back and forth through the years, the palpable crank-up of suspense, Houdini’s faked jeopardy on the stage but genuine peril off it, and Strauss’ sly knack of revealing while concealing. Along the way Galloway raises pertinent questions (how reliable is memory? how do we differentiate between truth and lies?) and, thrillingly, even demystifies famous magic tricks: how to catch a bullet, make an elephant disappear and pull off great escapes.
There are moments when Galloway’s sleight of hand becomes clumsy, his tricks too slick for their own good or verging on gimmicks. Also, Strauss’ metaphysical meditations on time, reality and deception slide into bouts of ponderous navel-gazing. When he says, “My mind is beginning to buzz again, and I’m in danger of becoming overwhelmed,” we find ourselves sharing his pain.
Fortunately, the less labored, more satisfying Houdini sections predominate. Galloway’s smoke and mirrors routinely cloud and distort his hero but this only adds to our enjoyment of this tale of murder and intrigue.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.