To the editor:
Michael G. Glab’s “Growing Up Strange” [May 1] made a tremendous impression on me, but I was halfway through it before I realized why: the transformation of Billy Frosch of Hillsdale, Michigan, into the sword-swallowing, fire-eating freak-show impresario William Darke is eerily parallel to the evolution of Magnus Eisengrim, the world’s greatest magician, in World of Wonders, the 1975 culminating volume of Robertson Davies’s “Deptford Trilogy.”
The eras and some of the circumstances are different, but the spirit of the resemblance is there. The hero of World of Wonders, Paul Dempster, is born in the tiny southern Ontario village of Deptford in 1910, to the town’s Baptist preacher and his madwoman wife. On August 30, 1918, Paul’s life is changed forever when, in defiance of his father’s orders, he sneaks into the village fair to see the carnival sideshow, becomes fascinated with the performance of the magician Willard the Wizard, only to be sodomized and kidnapped by Willard, a junkie who teaches Paul his entire repertoire of magic before his addiction finally debilitates and kills him. Enslaved to the traveling carnival for the next seven years, Paul never sees his family again. Through decades of wandering about Europe without a passport and surviving as a street performer, carnival magician, stage double, and skilled watchmaker, he emerges at last to become an international sensation who is selected by the BBC to star in a televised homage to the great 19th-century French illusionist Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin.
Glab’s true story of Frosch/Darke converges particularly well with Davies’s fictional story of Dempster/
Eisengrim at two points: both share an unsentimental insistence on the underlying dignity of humanity’s stranger and more deviant members, and both draw a convincing picture of an injured but talented individual achieving redemption through the patient, persistent effort to refine his gift. When the BBC producer asks, “What do you call a great magician?” Eisengrim replies: “A man who can stand stark naked in the midst of a crowd and keep it gaping for an hour while he manipulates a few coins, or cards, or billiard balls. I can do that, and I can do it better than anybody today or anybody who has ever lived.”
I usually reread the “Deptford Trilogy” about once every two years. It looks as if it’s time to read it again. When truth ratifies fiction, somebody’s on to something.