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(Rare Bird Books)
Master of Deception by John-Ivan Palmer lifts the velvet curtain from the specters of memory and blows a thick layer of dust off all that there abides. Palmer acts as a participant-observer penning an ethnography of his own life, but a far more colorful one than I've ever read before. His memoir is a deep dive into his past, his relationship with his stage-magician father (spoiler alert: there are rabbits in hats), his magician's assistant mother and the opaque world of floor-show performers and their private lives. The author plumbs these depths with deadpan humor, clinical precision, and a touch of wistfulness—not to mention a wry appreciation for the ironic and the surreal. Some enigmas of his father's story resolved themselves in the annals of stuffy, utilitarian government documents. Palmer researched his father's life after its conclusion the way someone might look for information about a distant ancestor, or a detective might investigate a missing person. He had to, and it makes the telling of his story all the more miraculous.
Although the author's gaze is penetrating, it is anything but aloof. Within these pages we find the tale of a boy forced to come of age and make sense of life as an outsider on the periphery of American suburban culture in the 1950s and 60s. Palmer's anecdotes reveal the absurdity of disorientation combined with childhood naivety. He spent much of his childhood riding in the back of the family automobile on the way to gigs sitting next to a rabbit on the floor with the seats ripped out while staring at the back of his father's head.
Given the author's description of his father's lengthy inscrutable silences, it's fair to wonder who had more to say: his father or the rabbit.
It wasn't just family life that was atypical. Moving every few days meant everyone was a stranger and community life was alien. He describes how a teacher he barely knew asked him and his class to draw a picture of a neighbor—a foreign concept to a kid living out of a trailer on the road. Not knowing what a "neighbor" was, he innocently drew something more familiar—a stage-performer with a bullwhip. Questions from teachers and fellow classmates the rest of us take for granted like, "What do your parents do for a living?" or "How did you spend summer vacation?" were situations that required the author to fabricate stories to cover for a truth that was, indeed, stranger than fiction:
I grew up with the likes of…a talking dog, an alcoholic knife thrower, a risqué ventriloquist, and assorted burlesque dancers like the Daring Lovadis and the Human Heat Wave. I was trained to be invisible around them since no one wants a kid in a dressing room, but I saw and heard everything. I had my chores, like retrieving the doves that flew off the stage, shoveling mayflies away from the footlights, and repacking my father's props. Home was a trailer parked in towns I seldom knew the names of, and for education my father had me follow kids to school and simply walk in and take a seat.
Despite his family's status as performers and cultural outsiders with an itinerant lifestyle, they reflected many of the commonplace values of that era. His family tried to belong under the pressures of conformity, stoicism, class insecurity and the dogged pursuit of the American Dream at the height of McCarthyism. These efforts required the meticulous concealment or denial of unpleasant truths at all costs, just as they have for many families. His father worked so hard that after an incident where he broke his foot, he performed with his foot in a cast and his leg in a prosthesis made to give the appearance of normalcy rather than accept a disability insurance payout. The decision was born of pragmatism. Hobbling around on stage paid more than staying at home awaiting insurance money. Like so many people then as now, he did what he had to do: survive and provide for his family. In Palmer's memoir, outward appearances seldom tell the true story. Caught beneath the bootheel of the unrelenting pressures of work, constant, bone-wearying driving from gig to gig, or the dream of a "normal" life realized too late, the family fractured. Like his parents, the author's struggle shifted from finding his place in the world to simply surviving it.
While family troubles and the dark side of the performing world are revealed in the form of alcoholism, loneliness and his parents' bitter divorce, Palmer's descriptions never slide into despair, but the sense of profound alienation wrought by distance, his mother's wrath and his father's profession, always remain. But ironically it was the isolation of a drifter's life that they shared in common even after splitting up:
Custody went back and forth between my parents depending on the judge. The ones who wore the robes in their chambers usually gave custody to her, and the ones who didn't gave custody to him. As legal and other bills began to mount, the house had to be hastily sold at a loss. So much for permanence. All three of us returned to being as transient as when we lived in the trailer, except now it was each of us separately. It often became a shell game with none of us ever quite sure where the other was. I don't know how we managed to locate each other, but we always did.
Given the outsized characters in the book, their unusual lives and often sad decline and gradual obsolescence, despair would be tempting and justifiable. Instead, his anecdotes often depict the nobility of fellow travelers and performers seeking solidarity and helping each other survive in the face of poverty and adversity. The reader is given an unflinching look at the weirdness of dressing rooms and backstage corridors, of the spirits that animated the costumes, trick boxes and shit-talking ventriloquist dummies. The surreality of this life is tempered by humor and humility. At times, the author's reflections ring with profundity, gravitas and the grace of a Shakespearean soothsayer:
I knew everyone I grew up with in terms of reconciling their presence with their absence. One always entailed the other.
In terms of the quality of the writing, Palmer's intelligence interweaves perspicacity with subtle sarcasm, peppered with just a dash of cynicism and sparingly used exposition. While the memoir contains wildly funny and tragic moments, it could not be entirely characterized as either satirical or tragic. Master of Deception only briefly delves into analysis of what it reveals, and those analyses are marked by oracular enigma, perhaps reflecting a burden of alienation and solitude born by its author. In any case, I found the narrative relatable on many levels. Above all, one is struck by Palmer's ability to imbue his subjects with humanity and multi-dimensionality. The author doesn't venerate any of these subjects—including his father—but he does pay them respect, which is enhanced by the unsentimental and uncanny knack he has for uncovering their strengths, foibles and triumphs against the backdrop of the challenges they faced.
I felt a strange and intense sense of kinship with the author and this story. Our backgrounds are 180 degrees different. I was raised in a staid, suburban household that moved twice in eighteen years. My father was an accountant, a cog in the bowels of state bureaucracy, the least and the most mysterious person I ever knew, my stepmother, a middle-class career mental patient. Yet my family were freaks striving to look and feel normal. I can relate to the author's sense of transient displacement and his mother's craving for home and stability. Although I was raised in a structure with a roof on top of it, there was never a sense of safety or permanence. Although Palmer's family eventually obtained a house, it was bereft of comforts—either physical or emotional—and it eventually became yet another place to experience alienation and to deposit secrets.
The author bore all the expectations for conformity of mid-20th century middle class suburban America, but with only 19th century technology and the weight of necessity to meet the demands of those expectations. Even after moving into a professionally built home in the suburbs, Palmer had no running water, no electricity, no introductions at his new school. Nor did he have transportation to and from school due to awkward circumstances and the brutal demands of his father's schedule. His narrative reads less like a kid trying to fit in at a Midwestern high school, and more like a kid who might have been mistakenly left for dead after his family broke a wagon wheel somewhere between Kansas and the Nevada desert on the Oregon Trail:
With an intuition that comes from being in strange places, I found Pilgrim Road and started walking. Reckoning from the sun's position…I headed north with a sack of books that grew heavier the longer I carried them. Students on passing busses looked at me as they passed, some laughing. After a couple of miles, I came to the house where my father was sleeping in the car. I didn't ask him about his pressing matters and he didn't ask me about mine. “I have to leave for Chicago,” he said. “Since you'll be at school all day you can use the bathroom there. I laid in an assortment of canned goods and a box of candles so you can have light. Somewhere I packed a can opener and some plates.” “How will I cook?” I asked, staring at the box. “Pretend you're a cowboy. Make a fire in the fireplace. Be sure to open the flue or the whole house will fill up with smoke.” I had no previous experience with fireplaces, so he had to show me how to do it. For writing materials, he gave me some Master of Deception stationary and a flat carpenter's pencil. Then, as he had always done, he got in his car and drove away.
I gathered enough box elder branches at the edge of a lot to start a fire…and fashioned a way to heat a couple of cans. I spread my sleeping bag on the floor and began catching up on my assignments, working into the evening by candlelight.
Even after having "made it"—barely eking out a living on his own as he was just getting his sea legs as a young performer—the concept of home and all it represents was elusive and illusory. Yet through the skills of his craft, the author was able to transmute wreckage into beauty, and fuse the hollow props of the present with the permanence of memories of the past. There is the eloquence of poetry in Palmer's description that evokes the powerful truth that home is not a place on Earth, but a place in the mind and in the soul, a truth known only to the wanderers of this world:
I endeavored to weave myself into what Henry James called “the embroidery of life's canvas.” The best I could do was enhance the light at the end of my personal tunnel by replacing the overhead bulb in rented rooms with the highest wattage I could find, turning dreary hovels into a kind of stage set where every crack and flaw, every speck and stain showed in brilliant clarity with me as the center. I even kept the light on at night so in the morning I woke up to a blazing geography of crumbling ceiling and stained wallpaper, the equivalent of a comforting wasteland around a trailer park.
Home may not have been a possibility for the author, but achieving an understanding with his father was. Palmer's relationship with his father was complicated, full of secrecy and silence—but also mutual admiration and respect. The irony is that the art and artifice surrounding stage magic is concrete—almost formulaic—if difficult to master. But the thoughts and feelings of the master himself remained more inscrutable than a 3,000-year-old cave painting. If the craft of magic requires mastery of sleight of hand and other distraction techniques, the art of magic requires mastery in perfecting the construction of one's mask. In the act of practicing his father's magic tricks Palmer came to know his father in a way that observing him—even with a view from backstage—could never permit. If John-Ivan's father is a master of deception, then the author himself is the master of lucidity. In the end, the man behind the Cheshire smile and the sleight of hand once again takes corporeal form for the reader. I know of no greater tribute a son could make his father, then to resurrect him and give him immortality.
- Justin Teerlinck