The Spirit Cabinetby Paul Quarrington
“Here is a magical novel . . . often funny, always surprising, and ultimately profound and very, very moving. . . . [Paul Quarrington] is a sorcerer, and his novel is spellbinding.” –Tim O’Brien
Full of high-energy, ironic humor and uncommon warmth, Paul Quarrington’s international bestseller is the tale of an unforgettable search for wonder in modern times. The Spirit Cabinet, set against the backdrop of the carnival world of Las Vegas magicians, follows superstars Jurgen and Rudolfo as they navigate the hilarious and painful conflicts that arise when one quits cheap illusion to pursue real magic.Swiss animal trainer Rudolfo has survived a bizarre childhood, complete with a transvestite mother, a fourth-rate artists’ salon”cum”opium den in his living room, and a surrogate family of captive bears. Jurgen escaped a low brow youth in Germany by moving to the city and talentlessly hawking his repertoire of parlor tricks, like the brutal Cingalese Eye Lift. Once they join forces, Jurgen and Rudolfo descend upon Las Vegas with a glittering and totally fake magic extravaganza. The show, Rudolfo’s brainchild, earns them vast wealth and a cultish following, as well as a place in the Las Vegas community of elite and eccentric performers.
But despite his enormous material success, Jurgen is unsatisfied. At great expense he buys Harry Houdini’s collection of ancient magicians’ books and paraphernalia, including the famous Davenport Spirit Cabinet. Jurgen, who usually shows interest only in soccer scores, hopes that in the collection he might find the key to the magical world he and Rudolfo have been imitating all these years. Soon he has changed beyond all recognition, and Rudolfo is heartbroken that Jurgen, his one great love, seems to be slipping out of his life”indeed out of the human realm.
Sharing the endearing strangeness and insight of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love and the novels of John Irving, The Spirit Cabinet is a comic story of love, chaos, and spiritual renewal. “This is not a book about magicians and their pursuit of magic,” writes The National Post (Canada). “It is a book about human beings, and their pursuit of faith.”
“Entirely magical . . . [The Spirit Cabinet] arrives at the intuition that any life is wonder-filled if you perceive it that way.” –San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle
“Quarrington gathers most of Vegas to see the duo’s final act, powerfully blending tears with philosophical enlightenment in a novel to be treasured, even by those who don’t believe in magic.” –Publishers Weekly
“No one gives humanity to life’s oddballs as well and as sensitively as Paul Quarrington. In The Spirit Cabinet he has created his best characters yet, a strange gang of Las Vegas magicians, bloated, tyrannical, shockingly self-centered. But in Quarrington’s hand they’re just like the rest of us: anxious, jealous, loving, shy, and very, very human. It’s a marvelous, funny novel, and it explains all those old card tricks.” –Roddy Doyle
“Here is a magical novel . . . often funny, always surprising, and ultimately profound and very, very moving. . . . [Paul Quarrington] is a sorcerer, and his novel is spellbinding.” –Tim O’Brien
“[The Spirit Cabinet] is quite simply a brilliant novel. It recalls the possibility of a more expansive Kafka. It is that very rare novel that is both bizarre and profound.” –Jim Harrison
“Darkly comic, deeply sad, and always ironic, this novel shows us that the difference between true magic and everyday charlatanism depends on a willingness to suspend disbelief and open oneself to miracles.” –Library Journal
“[Quarrington] pushes real life to the edge, to the place where the line between the screwball and the normal is practically invisible. . . . [His] rare comic gift has always been to combine the zany and the melancholy in his fiction and he manages to pull off that daring trick again in [The Spirit Cabinet].” –Quill & Quire (starred review)
Preston the Magnificent, Jr., (or, as he preferred to call himself privately, Preston the Adequate) stood outside the George Theater dressed in an old morning suit that had belonged to his father. Being a much larger man than Preston the Magnificent, Sr., he had only managed to do up one button on the slate-grey jacket. The lapels wowed over his girlish breasts; the jacket fell away on either side of his belly and the tails splayed. Despite the fact that he complemented it with sandals, exhibiting his oddly shaped and quite hairy toes, Preston felt that the suit lent an air of mournful dignity to the proceedings. He undermined this formality by glowering at people as they approached the George, his face warped by fury. Preston conveyed the impression that he could turn people away should he choose to, and might choose to do so violently. So people darted by him, ignoring the grunt that he meant as a greeting.
Once inside, the people would approach the glass box containing the ashen and improbably beehived Mrs. Antoinette Kingsley. Mrs. Kingsley shoved a crude little booklet at them, sets of photocopied sheets stapled together. Then, still alarmed by Preston’s bristling, sorrowful presence outside, the people would seek refuge in the old theatre hall, which smelled like time kept too long in an icebox. They would look at the little booklet, a catalogue of the McGehee Collection, as compiled by Preston. The script was produced by an old and infirm typewriter. The letters refused to sit upon the straight line, each jumping or dipping according to whim. Some letters were truncated, ghostly patches of grey left behind where serifs had broken off the keys.
Seeing as there were still quite a few minutes before the auction’s commencement, the people would allow the booklet to fall open. It always did so to pages eight and nine, where the most prominent listing was for item number 112: “The Davenport Spirit Cabinet.”
Preston didn’t frighten everyone, of course. For example, he didn’t frighten a very tall man wearing a white shirt with foppish collars and what appeared to be black tights. This man, the world-famous Kaz, had known Preston for many years. Of all the magicians in Las Vegas, Nevada (and there are many), Preston and Kaz were the longest resident. Kaz had moved to the desert when he was thirteen years old, there to perform illusions with towering topless showgirls. This accounted, Preston thought, for Kaz’s acne-ravaged skin and the spectacles with the thick, yellowed lenses.
Kaz approached Preston and announced, “I’m buying it. Just try and stop me.”
“Why would I want to stop you?” responded Preston. “Go ahead and buy it.”
“I’m buying it because I know.” Kaz exhaled heavily on the last word, and Preston noted the sourness of his breath. Kaz’s breath was spectacularly awful. Preston had heard that Kaz had had two or three operations trying to fix it, though he couldn’t imagine what sort of operations they might have been. He began reflecting on this question, but only as an evasive tactic, and could not escape the profound sickness that came to twist his belly. Kaz would buy it. Kaz had nothing but money; he made an obscene amount, half a million a week or something. Preston remembered hearing that Kaz was the highest paid act in Las Vegas–
No, wait. He took a breath and silently corrected himself. Kaz was the highest paid individual performer.
“Preston! Kaz! How are you hanging?”
The highest paid act, Preston realized, was coming down the sidewalk.
They were led by the albino leopard, Samson, who had lowered himself into stalking position but allowed the pads of his paws to slap the pavement heavily. The big cat knew this was a foolish way to get about; in a jungle he’d have cleared every living creature out of his path hours before he himself arrived. But he didn’t live in a jungle any more and retained only the vaguest memories of those first few weeks of life so long ago. The jungles he’d seen on TV didn’t look all that appealing, despite the presence of sleek young females. Not that Samson was interested in that so much, not since he’d awoken one day to discover that his testicles were missing. But, despite that grim morning, Samson was a contented and obedient animal, so he lowered his old bones and gamely continued the loud, menacing strut. When he felt a slight tugging on his jewel-encrusted collar, Samson licked his lips and produced a roar guaranteed to turn bowels watery.
“Oh, Samson,” tsked Rudolfo, even though it was he who had pulled upon the leash, “put a lid on top of it.”
Rudolfo’s partner, Jurgen Schubert, came to an abrupt halt. “Preston and Kaz,” he announced. “Two people.”
“Two people,” said Rudolfo, hurrying to help out, because offstage his companion lacked confidence and tended to strip down his English to the barest of bones, “that are your favourite people.”
“Ja,” said Jurgen.
Kaz leaned down and whispered, his fetid breath stirring the hairs in Preston’s ear, “What a couple of assholes.”
Preston the Adequate merely grunted. He didn’t approve of mean-mouthing fellow professionals, although it was hard to deny that Jurgen and Rudolfo were assholes. Leaving aside the fact that they’d brought a huge albino leopard to the auction, they themselves were done up in outlandish fashion. Jurgen, known as the more conservative of the pair, was clad in red leather, the jacket, pants and boots all the exact same bloody shade. Only his belt was otherwise, a foot wide, black and intricately tooled with a pattern of gnarled ivy.
Rudolfo was dressed in some sort of futuristic cowboy getup. His chaps were golden and the jeans beneath were made of a denim that was bleached until almost incandescent. His vest, which was all he wore on his upper body, was rendered out of metal and jewels and pieces of mirror, held together by thin silver wire. Beneath this peculiar garment, Rudolfo was all muscle, beautifully shaped and coloured. Due to an odd, utter hairlessness, his body looked as though it were made of porcelain.
“Hey, Kaz. Hey, Preston.” Miranda appeared magically. Both Kaz and Preston, who between them knew the workings to every gimmick, rig and apparatus ever invented, thought of Miranda’s appearance as “magical.” She seemed to step out of a cloud of light, in a blink of Preston’s eyes, in a sharp, sudden squinting of Kaz’s. There she stood, towering above her employers, Jurgen and Rudolfo, dressed in some sort of plastic bodysuit that sucked itself to her flesh. “So,” she asked bashfully, “how’s everybody?”
Miranda seemed to be having a profound effect on Kaz, who was panting audibly, although this might have had something to do with Samson, who was sniffing at Kaz’s genitals, shoving bits and pieces around with his snout.
Jurgen grinned, the owner of a vast number of blindingly white teeth. As the corners of his mouth turned upwards, his eyelids began to flutter girlishly. “Don’t worry, Kaz. Rudolfo has given Samson his lunchtime.”
“Ja, but Jurgen,” said Rudolfo, “maybe now is time for a little schnawk.”
Everyone laughed, no one with much enthusiasm. Samson backed away and sneezed, fluffing the folds of skin that hung over his colourless lips. It was his attempt to laugh along, although only Rudolfo recognized it as such. After that, a silence descended as each man looked into the others’ faces, trying to decipher purpose and plan.
The group paid no attention to the people who walked around them, through the open doorway into the George Theater. It was understood that these others were not players. They were lesser lights, mostly, magicians from the smaller hotels. There were a couple of illusionists of international stature, but they seemed to be down on their luck, sporting shiny tuxedos and cheap toup”es. Preston recognized Theodore Collinger, a friend of his father, once famous for his work with the Chinese rings. Collinger was now badly wrinkled, and his hands, shrivelled and clawlike, trembled awkwardly at his side. Preston shook his head. If any of these people had thoughts of competing in the auction, they would soon be dissuaded. While there might be any number of people in the world who wanted to own the Collection, only three (two if you counted Jurgen and Rudolfo as a single unit) could afford to.
A photographer from Personality magazine rushed up with the desperate singlemindedness of an assassin, the camera already stuck to his eyeball. Rudolfo, Jurgen and Kaz smiled with practised naturalness, upper lips trembling as they each tried to display just the fight amount of enamel. Miranda bent her knees so as not to loom over her bosses, and Samson shifted his weight onto his forelegs, assuming a heroic pose. Preston the Adequate scowled so profoundly that he would eventually be airbrushed out of the picture. The flashbulb exploded six or seven times, all within the same short moment, and then the photographer abruptly turned and darted away.
Preston stared at the other men, his dark eyes registering both wonder and judgement. He looked at Kaz, whose smallish eyes darted back and forth behind the lenses of his spectacles like small children trying to avoid the wrath of a bully. Then he looked at Jurgen and Rudolfo. The two men grinned still, somehow merrily frozen in time. Their faces were tanned, the whites of their eyes preternaturally white.
“Piss!” blasted Preston. He produced a cigarette and lit it clumsily. He looked at the others on the sidewalk and fashioned what he meant as a smile, although, judging from their reactions, his efforts again fell well short. He drew deeply on his butt and tried not to weep. It had been two months since Eddie McGehee had told him the Collection was to be auctioned off, but Preston’s feelings upon hearing the news–disgust, panic and the deepest of sorrows–had not diminished in any way.
The McGehee Collection was originally assembled by Ehrich Weiss, the man we know better as Harry Houdini. Despite remaining itinerate throughout his life, never owning more than a series of pieds-“-terre in New York City, Houdini was obsessed with collecting. His chief obsession was with books, ancient and historical, the learned weight of which would lend his profession of Vaudevillian an austerity that even his father, the Rabbi, might respect. Houdini also liked to own the actual mechanical appurtenances of his forebears. He enjoyed demonstrating to people just exactly how these devices worked, pulling apart the boxes to expose trapdoors and helpfully pointing out the hiding places created by angled mirrors in dark interiors, the implication being (although even Houdini lacked the chutzpah to say it aloud) that his own stage boxes lacked similar subterfuges.
By the year 1920, Weiss laid claim to the largest collection in the world of material regarding magic, magicians, books, scripts, spiritualistic effects, documents, steel engravings and automata. Unfortunately, around that time Weiss also became involved with movies, creating the Houdini Picture Corporation, responsible for flickers like The Man from Beyond and Haldane of the Secret Service. These were not the successes he’d imagined. Houdini was one of the most famous men on earth, but what people wanted was to see him, actually view him in the flesh, as he did battle with chains and ropes, dangled from skyscrapers or was tossed into icy rivers. They liked to watch him go one-on-one with the Grim Reaper, but distrusted his smug, silvery screen image; they suspected that the stunts were done with photographic trickery (even when they were not). Weiss had invested much of his own money in the Houdini Picture Corporation, so with great reluctance he let it be known that he might be willing to part with a portion of his wonderful collection.
Edgar Biggs McGehee, the grandfather of the current owner, appeared almost immediately. He had made an incredible fortune in the oil fields, but the only thing that engaged his interest was conjuring and prestidigitation. He considered himself one of the great amateurs, although his grandson Eddie clearly recalled detecting, even at the age of five, every sleight of hand the old man attempted. Eddie quickly learned to exclaim with great glee, no matter which card was presented as the one he’d chosen. And it was a matter of McGehee family legend that Edgar Biggs only stopped trying to saw his wife in half when someone noticed blood dripping from the cabinet (made in 1878 by the great Harry Kellar and sold to Edgar Biggs by Houdini) onto the floor.
The actual nuts and bolts of the McGehee/Weiss agreement have never been known but they were hammered out during one of Houdini’s performances. Prior to the meeting, Houdini had been handcuffed and manacled. Chains were draped over his shoulders; they somehow had the appearance of a ceremonial mantle. Houdini was placed in a large wooden box, which was hammered shut and it too wreathed in chains. Then the audience stared at the box for about an hour, an hour during which there was no apparent activity on stage. Finally, Houdini reappeared, dripping with sweat and dangling the chains from his hands like the severed heads of dragons. The chains about the wooden box remained unmolested, mysteriously mute.
During that hour Edgar Biggs had been ushered backstage, where he found Houdini sitting calmly in a rocking chair, sipping a cup of tea with lemon. Houdini dismissed his many assistants with a regal gesturing of his thick fingers and indicated a small stool where McGehee might sit. The men began to talk in whispers. They could hear the audience beyond, stirring nervously in their seats.
Houdini ended up selling perhaps a third of his collection. What remained was given to the Library of Congress after his death. The severance, the McGehee Collection, was taken to Nevada, where Edgar Biggs maintained a residence about fifty miles south of Las Vegas–which didn’t exist in any substantial way back then–on the fringes of the Mojave Desert. It was a very modest residence for a multi-billionaire, a mud-covered hovel surrounded by three tilted outbuildings. For the first few years, Edgar Biggs would visit the Collection only occasionally, but the frequency and duration of his visits increased as he grew older. In his last days, Edgar Biggs dwelt in the desert continually. The few times he was seen, he was wearing only what appeared to be an enormous diaper. He had shaved all the hair from his head, except for a topknot, a spray of gossamer filament that stood bolt upright. He was so gaunt that his bones threatened to rip through his paper-thin skin with every movement.
After Edgar Bigg’s death, his son, Edgar Biggs McGehee, Jr. (“Ed,” he called himself, being a no-nonsense-type fellow), moved the Collection to Las Vegas proper, soon after the city had exploded upon the sands. He stored the books and pieces in a warehouse, where they were protected from the elements; other than that Ed proved to be an indifferent administrator, only mentioning the Collection around tax time, when it served to open a sizable loophole. (His indifference might have had something to do with the fact that it was Ed, a doting teenage son, who first noticed the blood dripping from Kellar’s old cabinet and realized his mother’s anguished screams were not as stagey as they sounded.) When Ed died, his son, Eddie, assumed control. He located–in the George, a run-down theatre where the ghosts of failed tragedians made the building groan and whimper–both a home and a curator. Preston the Magnificent, Jr., spent four years rummaging, cataloguing–the happiest years of his life–and when he was finished, Eddie had announced his intention of placing the McGehee Collection up for auction.
“I’m surprised you guys came,” Preston said to the four people gathered around him outside the George, seeing how far he could push a bluff. “This is real boring stuff. Collectors’ stuff. Some of the books are pretty damn dry. Very academic.” He pronounced the last word with pompous precision. He still clung to the hope that a university would purchase the Collection, stick it in some cobwebbed storage room where it would be forgotten over time. Preston knew it was folly to imagine that universities had anywhere near the financial resources of these guys. Still, he’d fired off letters, listing the books and the pieces, making grand statements about the historical significance, though he doubted any university representative would show up. He had more faith in the arrival of an eccentric billionaire. Such creatures inhabited the deserts surrounding Las Vegas, after all. Some senile fart pumped full of monkey-gland juice could cart the Collection home–Preston wouldn’t mind that so much. The only other satisfactory outcome to this whole thing–and in many ways the likeliest–would be for the earth to open up and swallow the auction hall and everyone in it.
“Oh, Preston,” said Jurgen Schubert, “it is not a surprise that I am interest in this.” Jurgen’s skull was square and all of his features oddly rectangular, as though he’d been designed by an architect, planned out on blue drafting paper. His hair was made up of tight golden fiddleheads, a dense mat of curls that he brushed forward so that it draped evenly over his brow like a bedspread. He was deeply tanned, but, even so, his eyelids seemed much darker than the rest of his face, in a bruised, unhealthy way. “I am telling you a story.”
“Hoo boy!” called out Rudolfo eagerly, clapping his hands together. “Tell us this story.” This was how they behaved on television shows, Jurgen doing most of the talking, Rudolfo reduced to over-enthusiastic responses and exhortations, even though Rudolfo’s English was much better than Jurgen’s.
“I am hearing about a book in bookshop,” said Jurgen. “It is cost twenty Deutschmark.”
“Which,” put in Rudolfo, “is a lot.”
“Ja, ja. Es war sehr teuer.”
“So vot did you do, Jurgen?”
“I work at docks. I am eleven years old. But I am getting up every Saturday and Sunday at three in the morning and go to the docks in Bremerhaven, and I am lift with the men huge craters.”
“Hold on,” said Rudolfo loudly, laying a hand on his partner’s shoulder. “You are making a mistake, my friend.”
“Not craters. Crates.”
Jurgen didn’t bother to correct himself, but turned back to Preston and said, “Four hours on my old bicycle to Bremerhaven. Two hours to go, two hours to come home. Every weekend. So after many weeks, I have money. I buy the book. You know what book was?”
“The Secrets of Magic Revealed,” said Jurgen. “By your father. Preston the Magnificent.”
“Hoo boy!” shouted Rudolfo.
“So, it is not so a very big deal for Rudolfo and I to get into our very long limousine and tell Jimmy the driver to come here. So I don’t know why you are surprise.”
“Yeah,” agreed Preston, “I don’t know why I’m surprised either.”
“That was my first book, too,” said Kaz.
At first Preston thought this was just more evidence of Kaz’s absurdly competitive nature, but he quickly decided otherwise. The Secrets of Magic Revealed was everybody’s first book. Judging from the magicians who worked many of the smaller rooms, it was some guys’ only book. A couple of times Preston had heard patter, taken word for word, from those pages, silly stuff that had been laughable when his father had said it. At least, Preston always found it laughable. His father, ornately moustached, his hair greased and moulded into an unlikely peaked coiffure, seemed to get away with it. “For just as our telluric orb is a moonlet of mighty Sol,” Preston the Magnificent would say, aiming a finger at the little rubber globe that circled his head, “so we espy here testament to consonance and concinnity!” Magicians still performed the illusion and they still said essentially the same crap, the only difference being the statuesque near-naked women standing behind them, guilelessly gesturing at the revolving sphere.
“I would have been five, six,” Kaz continued. He pulled off his thick spectacles and chewed on one arm, both to affect a more thoughtful air and to keep Miranda at a fuzzy distance, to break her spell. “I was performing the big illusions by the time I was seven. The close-up stuff took longer. I didn’t master coins until I was nine.” This, too, thought Preston, was talk-show behaviour, Kaz reciting his personal history, at least the one-pager used by his army of publicists. It was all Kaz was ever asked about and it was the only information he ever gave, the meagre outline of a strange life. Kaz was the youngest person ever admitted to the Inner Circle of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and given the status of Grand Wizard. It was true, Preston would admit, that the kid was sensational. His show-stopper was “The Mannequin,” a classy little bit of animation involving a dressmaker’s form that comes to life and follows the young Kaz around the stage. The kid would appear unmindful of his admirer, going about his business, turning away by chance whenever the ardent dummy tried to present herself.
“That was good,” said Preston suddenly, alarming even himself. “The Mannequin. You still do that?”
“Are you crazy?” Kaz said loudly, driving everyone backwards with a gust of rancid breath, including the huge albino leopard. “I haven’t done that shit since I was sixteen.”
Preston the Adequate sighed, and a single teardrop rolled out, getting lost in the grey folds piled up beneath his left eye. Preston was a somewhat leaky man, often burdened by a runny nose, watery eyes and even oozing beads of white stuff from the pores of his face. “Okay, okay,” he muttered. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
©1999 by Paul Quarrington. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.