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Handsome Jack, etc.

Written by Handsome Jack, Annotated by John Lovick

review by Jamy Ian Swiss

After 18 years and about 475 reviews, my last three Genii book reviews appeared in the January 2013 issue. Since then many things have changed in my life, not the least of which is I get to read real books and magazines instead of those about magic, and I only read those about magic that I really want to. Which, as it has turned out over the past almost four years, has been few and far between.

Not that I’ve been completely ignoring matters.  Most of the books I’ve particularly enjoyed in that time include:

  • Mike Caveney Wonders & The Conference Illusions (Mike Caveney)
  • Full Bloom (Gaetan Bloom and Kevin James)
  • Ne Plus Ultra: J.N. Hofinzer (Magic Christian)
  • I Lie For Money (Steve Spill)
  • Labyrinth (Stephen Hobbs)
  • The Experts at the Card Table (David Ben)
  • In Order to Amaze (Pit Hartling)

I’m absolutely certain there have been a few more good ones that I’ve missed, however, since I started having to pay for my own books.

But then, this one book came along that I felt compelled to comment about.

Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in.

I dare say that few readers will need an introduction to Handsome Jack. What sentient 21st-century stylish human hasn’t thrilled to his modeling exploits, delighted in tales of his “affairs, dalliances, conquests, and entanglements,” and hung on his every word about encounters with greatness almost comparable to that of his own?

And then, of course, as if all that weren’t enough, there is his repeatedly award-nominated work as a professional magician!

Fortunate are we to be in the presence of such glamour and grandeur, which we can bring to the privacy of our own coffee table in the form of this new book by the Handsome One himself. Need I say more?

No, but I will anyway.

The Performance Pieces & Divertissements of the Famous Handsome Jack, etc. is an unprecedented collection of professional caliber performance magic, taken from a working pro’s polished and audience-tested repertoire. I have in fact witnessed a substantial portion of this material performed in person, and I can attest to its value, as material that is consistently both deceptive and entertaining, and beyond those minimum requirements, constitute exceedingly clever performance pieces that reflect a unique performer’s individual style, persona, and—well, I was going to add “taste,” but that might risk overstating the case when it comes to The Handsome One.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it does bring me to the one element of this distinctive volume which some may consider a detriment, namely the running commentary offered throughout its pages by someone named John Lovick.

Now, I don’t know who this John Lovick thinks he is, but he seems to find it necessary to demean and correct and explain Mr. Jack’s words throughout the book, inserting elaborate and repetitive footnotes on seemingly every page. Indeed, some pages are blank except for his footnotes! These footnotes are filled with all sorts of details about historical credits and the creative process, all things that are obviously of little interest to Mr. Jack, and I don’t know why they’d be of interest to you, but look at it this way: you’re paying for the Handsome Jack genius, and the rest of the ink just comes along for the ride, for those few who might want to read it.

Most grating of all is that Mr. Lovick repeatedly accuses the real author of being an arrogant, self-absorbed, deluded egomaniac who supposedly steals material now and then, but if he would just look at the title page he would clearly see that Criss Angel did not write this book.

If the various introductions to the book are to be believed—one of which is written by Penn & Teller, who certainly wouldn’t lie—some legal agreement apparently guarantees Mr. Lovick the right to state his claims to originality and such, as long as he doesn’t actually alter Mr. Jack’s original text. And so the reader gets to watch an ongoing verbal ping-pong match between success and envy, wit and wonk. I confess, this can be damnably entertaining at times, and the final effect is without doubt one of the cleverest, most originally conceived, and downright funniest magic books I have ever had the pleasure to read. And there is no Handsome hyperbole in that: I do mean, ever.

The book is divided into Openers, Center Pieces, and Closers, which offers a clear view of how Handsome Jack, or any of his students and admirers, might go about constructing a show, or putting to use any of the particular routines in these pages. The first four routines will be based on plots familiar to most working magicians: A bottle production; Billy McComb’s “McCombical Prediction”; Martin Lewis’ “Cardiographic”; and a version of the $100 Bill Switch (a version not included in the encyclopedic tome, Switch, devoted entirely to this very subject and authored by Mr. Lovick). Each of these routines takes these standard plots and provides distinctly new and original presentations and approaches, along with sound technical changes and additions. This is professional caliber standup magic—a relatively rare element in the general output of magic publishing. (It should be mentioned that the pages that describe much of the construction of the commercially marketed “Cardiographic” prop were blacked out with a magic marker or something in my copy, which is damnably frustrating because I thought it would save me money instead of having to buy an authorized version of the prop. But I think I can find something on YouTube anyway.)

Between the first and second major segments of the book, the reader comes upon an eight-page essay entitled “Persona and Other Pieces of the Performance Puzzle” by the Lovick guy, which seems mostly a lengthy excuse to be able to tell us he has “an MFA in theatre directing,” even though I don’t know what that possibly could have to do with magic. But if you’re inclined toward reading the pages without pictures, this is an extremely substantive piece about why Mr. Loserovick prefers the term “persona” to “character” (something I guess they teach in MFA school), and includes a detailed discussion of what the author calls the “four characteristics that I think a successful persona should have,” namely: Consistence; Originality; Specificity; and Vulnerability.

If you are interested in the kind of success the writer is, namely artistic rather than commercial (which seem to reflect differing aspects of these two writers, but what do I know), this essay comprises a thought-provoking and useful piece of guidance, and also includes the results of Mr. Lovick’s having asked about two dozen prominent performers how they personally rank in their own work and in order of importance, the following: effect, method persona, and presentation. This is a marvelous exercise and one could spend some thoughtful and productive hours considering one’s own choices as well as the choices reported here. (I’m guessing Handsome Jack probably skipped this chapter.)

The Center Pieces section is the heartiest of the book, including as it does twelve routines, some of which can be used in close-up conditions, and a number of which are probably most readily adaptable to performers who are less handsome than Handsome. I was particularly amused by “A Dip Into Scripture,” a somewhat blasphemous and potentially hilarious piece, based on David Regal’s “Journey to Love,” and constructed around the prediction of a made-up bible verse. Praise be!

Other routines in this section include “Houdini Outdone!” which is based on Harry Anderson’s “Cuff Links,” a version of the Thumb Tie done with handcuffs that includes some genuine physical comedy. “Hand in My Pocket” includes Handsome’s version of an unpublished Max Maven plot, in which a card trick is performed while the performer keeps one of his hands in his pants pocket throughout, eventually managing to produce the selected card from the isolated hand. I particularly enjoyed the closing segments of this entry, which describes several alternate methodological approaches to the same effect.

Also included in this segment are two versions of the torn and one-restored-corner-at-a-time card plot. One of these, “The Reparation,” has been previously marketed by Mr. Lovick, and the follow-up included here, “The Reparation Strikes Back,” reflects some further changes and developments which, as Mr. Lovick points out, are not necessarily clear improvements but rather refinements that present different strengths and weaknesses that result from making the requisite choices in handling and method. (An extended footnote—[why are there SO MANY???]—describes a complete history of this plot, pointing out an oft-overlooked but very early entry by David Regal, entitled “Piece by Piece,” first published in 1987.) The instructions for both versions are extremely clear, as are the reasoning behind their differing choices, which perhaps represents the most valuable elements in these thoroughly detailed descriptions. I personally prefer sticking more closely to the approach reflected in Guy Hollingworth’s “Reformation”—in short, due to the fact that all the restorations are genuine (there is no bluff phase) and the signature apparently stays in view the entire time as the routine is performed with the face of the card constantly being shown to the audience (unlike some other variants in which the signature is only seen at the beginning and end and is out of view during the restorations). But if you are seriously considering performing a version of this plot, these routines are well worth your study, as they will be highly instructive concerning the issues that must be addressed in order to achieve a convincing and deceptive performance of a challenging piece of sleight-of-hand magic, no matter your particular choice of handling.

While I have singled out several routines in the Center Pieces section that I find noteworthy or instructive, your preferences may well vary, as other pieces, including mental magic and close-up card magic, serve to usefully vary the content.

Dividing the Center Pieces from the Closers section comes yet another eight-page interruption from Mr. Lovick, entitled “Scripting and Similar Essentials.” Much like the earlier interlude, this one also lacks any pictures. The launching point of this segment is essentially Mr. Lovick’s assertion that, “Two of the necessary ingredients of making your performances worth an audience’s time are: having a point of view and having something to say.” If you think there is any merit to this rather outlandish notion, then by all means, have at it, as it’s likely you will find this forthright and practical discussion of substantial value and actual use.

The Closers section is an adventure in cleverness and creativity that begins with Juan Tamariz’s stage slate routine from The Magic Way and ends with a prediction based on the television series, “Little House on the Prairie.” For the life of me I can’t bring myself to try to explain this in an abbreviated fashion, but even though I doubt I would ever find use for this particular routine, the description is a joy ride to read.

The next piece, “Vainfabulation,” is an ingenious version of “Confabulation” that should get any thinking performer, well, thinking. The description begins with a transcript of Handsome Jack’s performance of this routine at Dan and Dave Buck’s Magic-Con gathering in San Diego, in which Handsome Jack engaged in something of a public dialogue with none other than David Blaine in the course of the performance. I was there, and I can attest to the accuracy of the transcript and the hilarity that ensued. Handsome Jack has never been better.

Well, except when he was on Penn & Teller: Fool Us last year, when he managed to fool the authors of one of this book’s multiple introductions with a torn-and-restored routine done with a printed self-promotional flyer. That very trick, entitled “Mutilation & Restoration with Explanation (and Additional Restoration) (Handsome is great at snappy titles, just like the title of this book, which I haven’t got space to repeat here) is the closer to the Closers section and thereby the entire book, and it is a worthy climax to the edgy pleasuring its pages represent. The true beauty of having fooled Penn & Teller with this piece is that what deceived them came down to a finger palm and an instant of brilliant, persona-based misdirection.

I have already commented on how thoroughly entertaining—and I do mean in repeatedly laugh-out-loud fashion—I found this book. To me, not much more is necessary, but there is indeed much more. The material is all practical, deceptive, and potentially entertaining. The details of thinking that led to each routine’s creation is buried in the footnotes that, to those inclined to read such material, might well serve as the most valuable lessons to be discovered within and extracted from its pages. There is a lot here to absorb, and enjoyably so.

What is probably most important to note, however, is that very little of this material will be doable with the scripts provided, or even in some cases with the exact effects offered, because it is so particularly reflective of and suited to the persona of its creator, Handsome Jack—and in this lies not the book’s greatest frustration, but rather its greatest strength.

Then again, if you are one of the very rare and special individuals who possess the necessary degree of frothy duskiness, proper nastiness, stately and carbonated deportment, along with a genuinely herbal personality, an ample reservoir of spontaneous foaminess, a fundamentally ubiquitous character, the proper mimetic temperament, the right aromatic aura, the proper barometric personality, and the inherent copiousness and proper citric quality necessary to do justice to this material exactly as it is written—well, then good luck to you, and may you be every bit as successful as Handsome Jack himself. 

But there are few performers in magic whose work depends so heavily on persona, and fewer still who possess such a clear grasp of their own. The material in these pages amounts to a stunning male model of how to reflect one’s persona in one’s selection, creation, and performance of suitable material. And that guiding element renders this book nothing less than an advanced if not expert manual of professional performance.

Certainly that should be more than enough to cause you to open a new browser and order your copy for prompt delivery. But if you need something more, I will also mention that the book is beautifully designed by Gabe Fajuri, reflecting a marvelous use of two-color printing in which the color red is used not only for the binding, but also in the line drawings, and to colorize the number of every footnote, a lovely and effective design element. In addition, every routine is preceded by a full page frontispiece consisting of a portrait of Handsome Jack in different artistic styles, from that of Charles Schulz to Andy Warhol to Pablo Picasso to Edward Munch, so if you don’t like the tricks you can just tear these pages out and frame them to the envy and admiration of your art-appreciating guests.

Now, I may not know much about art, but I know what I like. And I liked this book a lot. So much, I’ve now apparently returned to reviewing books just so I could write about this one. For better or worse, I guess that’s saying something.

The Performance Pieces & Divertissements of the Famous Handsome Jack, etc. by Handsome Jack annotated by John Lovick, published by Squash Publishing. Deluxe, hardcover book; 212 pages, two-color text, illustrated including thirty original caricatures; introduction by Penn & Teller. Available from Squash Publishing, $55 plus S&H.

 

The Lyons Den

Jamy Ian Swiss is a magician, performer, author and consultant. In the Lyons Den he offers honest, frank and insightful commentary on magic.

More about Jamy Ian Swiss. To submit material for review, or to send comments/feedback about the Lyons Den, contact lyonsden@magicana.com

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