Henry Walker was once a world-class magician, performing to sold-out shows in New York. But now he has been reduced to joining Musgrove's Chinese Circus (which at no point in its tour of the deep South has ever included a single Chinese person) as the shambling Negro Magician, whose dark black skin and electric green eyes bewitch most audiences. But one balmy Mississippi night in 1954, Henry disappears in the company of three rowdy white teens and is never seen again. Wallace pieces together Henry's incredible vagabond life – from a deal with a bone-white devil known only as Mr. Sebastian, to the heartrending loss of his sister Hannah – and creates an enchanting tale of love, loss, identity, and the limitation of magic.
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Daniel Wallace is the author of three novels, Big Fish (1998), Ray in Reverse (2000) and The Watermelon King (2003). His stories have been published far and wide in many magazines and anthologies, including The Yale Review, The Massachusetts Review, Shenandoah and Glimmer Train, and his illustrated work has appeared in the L.A. Times and Italian Vanity Fair. Big Fish has been translated into 18 languages and was adapted for film by Tim Burton and John August, and is now available on DVD loaded with extras - including an interview with the author. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his wife and son and teaches at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A Long Story
May 20th, 1954
Jeremiah Mosgrove-the proprietor of Jeremiah Mosgrove's Chinese Circus-hired Henry Walker four years ago, at the halfway point of the twentieth century, hired him almost as soon as he'd walked into Jeremiah's office: he needed a magician. He hadn't had a magician in the show for going on a year, not since Rupert Cavendish. Sir Rupert Cavendish was his full name, and he'd been a skilled prestidigitator- that is, until he lost most of his digits in a thresher. For a while they kept him on as a guesser of weight and age. But he always went high on both counts, and soon people began to avoid him. Last Jeremiah heard, he'd found work at a poultry farm, gutting chickens. Since then, nothing. And what is a circus without magic? You could hardly call it a circus at all.
Before he became proprietor, Jeremiah-a huge man, with hair covering most of his body-was the Human Bear: the tips of his fingers and the glow in his cheeks were the only evidence he had skin at all. But he'd always had dreams, and when the owner of the circus died (surprisingly, in this world of freaks and freak occurrences, of natural causes), Jeremiah used his intimidating size and verbal skills to ascend the throne, where he'd been ever since. Nothing changed during his tenure but the name: though there had never been a Chinese person associated with the circus, Jeremiah liked the sound of it. So Chinese Circus it was.
The day Henry came, Jeremiah's office was a slat of plywood balanced on two wooden horses, one chair, without walls or ceiling, carpeted in straw and horseshit, at the edge of the field where he'd chosen to set up the show. Henry had appeared from nowhere. Later, some would say they'd seen him wandering a long road alone, or crawling from a gully, or something like that, a story of a mysterious appearance to bookend the mysterious disappearance that, four years later, would follow.
"Show me what you can do," Jeremiah said to him, all business. But Henry-weak, thin, shaky-could do almost nothing. The pack of old cards he removed from his pocket fell like confetti from his nervous hands. Finally, he was able to force a card, produce a flower, change water into wine. But the truth was he had little more than his magnificent presence: he was tall, gaunt, doomed-and black. A black man with green eyes-a Negro-and this, in the end, is why Jeremiah hired him. A marketing tool of these dimensions was not something he could let pass by. For a magician was nothing, really, the same way a cow was nothing. But a Negro magician-or, say, a two-headed cow-now, that was something. Better even than a Chinese acrobat. Jeremiah felt that Henry's inability to do anything truly amazing (Henry thought of it as a kind of impotence, after so many potent years) might actually work in his favor, at least with the crowds of the small Southern towns where Jeremiah made his living. So he hired him, and his prediction came true. Watching a Negro fail was amusing. It was life- affirming. A white magician who performed as Henry did-fumbling his cards, accidentally smothering a bird in his jacket, and who, while sawing a woman in half, almost actually did (she was fine, after they bandaged her up)-would have been a sad and pathetic display of simple ineptitude. But Henry, the Negro Magician-the extremely unmagical Negro magician-well, it was comedy, and the crowds could not get enough of it. He played to a full tent every night.
The night Henry met the three young men was not the first night they'd come; it was their third. He had seen them enough-and overheard them speak to one another-that by now he'd been able to identify them. They were Tarp, Corliss, and Jake. All of them were at the tail end of their teens. Tarp: mean, merciless, lean and hard as rope. Corliss: a lard of mass and muscle, big as a horse but not as smart. And Jake. The quiet one. Tarp's little brother. Jake wouldn't hurt you, but he wouldn't help you much, either, cowed by his brother's will and Corliss's size. Each night they sat a bit closer to the front, and now they were in the very first row. Henry's tent wasn't that big-everybody, even the fat lady, had a bigger tent than he did-but full was full, and there was some small gratification in that, a minor delight at least. When Henry peeked through the curtain and poured a pail of water on the buckets of dry ice strategically placed out of sight around the stage, he had the illusion of success, which, in his current state, would have to do. Illusion had been his life.
The show began. A carpet of smoky fog set off by a trio of flashlights tied with rope to wooden planks preceded his predictable entrance.
His act, such as it was, was a parody of what everyone already imagined a magic show to be. He wore a fancy black suit with tails, a white shirt, a bow tie, the big top hat-everything. This alone sometimes got a snicker. But Jeremiah had insisted on all of it. "Look the part," he said. "Even if you can't play it."
Adding to the amusement was the expression on Henry's face. It was deadly serious. He had no smiles for his audience as he took the stage. The smiles would come later. As handsome as any man you were likely to see, black or white, he held them all in his hands with his looks alone. He had a presence. Tall, wide-shouldered, legs like stilts. His face was thin, so thin you could see how it was put together: the high cheekbones, strong chin, and wide forehead. His long, sharp nose. It was his eyes, though, that were mesmerizing: they were shaped like almonds, but green, an emerald green. Every night Henry remained open to the possibility that this was the night his powers would return. Though nothing ever happened in the moments before he took the stage-no inward resurgence, no epiphany; in short, no magic-Henry-when it happened, if it happened-wanted to be ready for it. He wanted to be appropriate. And so he was, at least in the moments immediately before a show, wildly hopeful, even when there was absolutely no reason to be.
It was all a memory, but the strongest kind, the memory of the time when he was more powerful than anyone could ever possibly imagine. Those days were distant now, another life altogether. But this memory was in his eyes, in the fearlessness of his expression, his very stance. He was, simply, proud. And this, too, was amusing to the assembled crowd.
Amusing and-to Corliss and Tarp, especially-infuriating. Henry saw it in their expressions, in their postures, in their actions. The night before, as Henry walked out, Tarp spat into the sawdust floor. Corliss glowered. Jake, the third, brushed the hair out of his eyes- his long, thin brown bangs covered them like a veil-and tried to smile. Though they were all nearly men, newly grown, Jake's face allowed for the possibility of wonder, like the face of a little boy. He seemed to share with Henry, even on that third night, even after experiencing the two previous dismal failures, the expectation that something good would happen now, that they would all be treated to an evening of real magic. It was hard for Henry to watch Jake's growing disappointment, salt in the wound of the disappointment he had in himself.
As the last customers filed into the tent that night, Henry could hear JJ the Barker's daily refrain, which, though word-for-word identical every single time, he somehow managed to invest with the energy of a pulpit preacher coming upon the words for the very first time: . . . and not just any magician, ladybugs and beetles. Do I look like someone who would ask you to spend your hard-earned money on a mere magician, on the tired spectacle of a poor man pulling a rabbit out of his hat, or sawing a beautiful woman in half, or making your wife disappear forever-though he will do that, sir, if you so desire (and I can see that you do). No! I wouldn't ask you to waste your time viewing such tired and pointless antics. For who and what awaits you beyond these increasingly ancient and semi-dilapidated tent walls is something much greater than all that. For this is a man who has met the devil himself-the devil himself!-and come away with Lucifer's darkest secrets, secrets that were he to tell would melt your very soul. But he will show, not tell. And that is where the magic lies.
Henry and JJ were friends.
That night, Tarp and the rest had refused even to pay. Henry heard them arguing with JJ at the entrance. Tarp said, We've already seen his show twice. It's shit-praise God. And JJ said, That puts me in mind of the woman complaining about an expensive meal: It not only tastes bad, she said, but the servings are small. But JJ let them in, as anyone would have. Corliss, with one of his big arms, could have squeezed the life right out of him.
And so the show began. Seeming to glide through the knee-high fog, Henry stopped at the edge of the stage and regarded the crowd. Then he spoke, his deep voice tinged with the melancholy of a man who now knew he was about to fail as only he could: magnificently.
"Welcome, friends," he said. "I am Henry Walker, the Negro Magician. But the magic you'll witness tonight is not my own. The mind- shattering illusions-I could not tell you myself how they are done."
"Poorly," Tarp said, so everybody could hear. "Lord knows they are poorly done."
Henry glanced Tarp's way, but only briefly.
"The dark arts," Henry continued, "are dark for many reasons, are dark in many ways. Only the devil himself knows their source, for it is from the devil himself that they come."
"You got that right," Tarp said.
"Keep an open mind," Henry continued. He felt more eyes in the audience on Tarp than there were on him. "And if you see the world as a place where magic can happen, you will see magic in your world tonight."
"Highly unlikely," Tarp said.
Tarp, of course, was right. From this beginning, the show proceeded in as dismal a fashion as it could have. Henry's hands were shaking as he produced the first deck of cards and dropped them; they landed facedown at his feet. He quickly knelt to gather them up, nimbly cutting and straightening them as he did. Already the audience gave off a nervous energy. How bad could this possibly be? they wondered. How many conceivable ways are there to fail? And in lieu of magic, is this what they'd actually come to view, what they'd come here to learn-that, no matter how low on the ladder of life they had been dragged down, no matter how miserable they were or would become, there would always be someone clinging to the rung below them, and his name would be Henry Walker?
Yet it was pretty snappy, the way he gathered up the cards. It was almost as if he had never dropped them. He smiled at the audience, a big smile, his teeth so white, so perfect, his eyes so hard and bright, his smile proved to them that his confidence was not remotely shattered. It wasn't even cracked. This could happen to anybody, and maybe-who knows?-it was a charming sort of forced ineptitude meant to endear: For, though I will amaze you in a moment with magic that will melt your very mind, I am in fact no different from you. I make mistakes just like the next guy-not by a long shot am I perfect, just like you and you and you.
But tonight there were other forces at work. Usually his audiences were composed of simple people who came to be entertained, and at this moment, at night in a small tent at a sideshow fair filled with freaks and weirdos and the concatenation of life's refuse, who didn't love the unmagical Negro? Most did. They loved him the way you love a three-legged dog, even though they were in northern Alabama now, not far from the spot where some genius got the idea for the Ku Klux Klan. People down here had a different way of looking at things. No, he wouldn't be welcome in my home, and if he looks at my daughter I'm going to have to kill him. But, sure, he can show me a magic trick. I reckon that'll be all right. Tonight, though, Henry felt the tent choking with real hatred and a malevolent kind of hunger that could not be quelled by anything except its own satisfaction.
Corliss cleared his throat as Henry neatly fanned the cards. Tarp laughed. Jake sadly shook his head. And when Henry cut his eyes at them, the life drained out of his face.
Tarp had one of his cards. "Looking for something?" he said.
Henry forced a smile. "Yes," he said, extending an empty hand. "Thank you."
He reached for the card, and just before he could grab it, Tarp pulled the card back.
"The card," Henry said. "Please."
"I'll give it back," he said.
"First, though," Tarp said, pausing, lingering in Henry's embarrassment, "first, you tell me what it is. Shouldn't be hard for a man of your-" Tarp couldn't think of the word. He elbowed Jake.
"-prodigious," Jake said softly.
"Okay, right. For a man of your pro-digious talents."
"What it is?" Henry said. "You mean, which card? The card you hold against your chest?"
At this, a few people laughed. But they were all fixated on Henry and his plight, because no one thought, even for a moment, that this was a part of the show. They all knew exactly what was happening, and, good Lord, it was going from bad to worse really quick. Tarp pressed the card against his chest and stared at Henry, bright-eyed, daring him to hazard a guess or, failing that, actually attempt to take it from him. Which, as Henry walked toward him, seemed a real possibility.
But a few feet away, Henry stopped.
"I have a perfect memory," Henry said. "There is nothing I see that I don't remember. For instance, you, sir"-and he pointed to a farmer in the third row-"have a kernel of popcorn stuck to the bottom of your left shoe." The farmer looked, and darn if he didn't. Gasps all around. "And you, miss," he said, looking at a young girl just behind the farmer, "you should remove the tag from your dress. Five dollars is indeed a nice price for something so fine as that, but we don't all need to know it." The young lady blushed, more than a bit embarrassed. Then Henry looked at Tarp. "So of course I remember each of the fifty-two cards in this deck. In half a second I can look at the cards I am holding and tell you which I have and which I don't."
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