Tricks of the Trade: Courtney Harler Reviews Illusions of Magic by J.B. Rivard

J.B. Rivard (c) 2016

In Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago, Spokane novelist J.B. Rivard tells the story of Nick Zetner, a.k.a. “The Amazing Mr. Z.,” an out-of-work magician desperate for cash and stability. So desperate, in fact, his lovely wife/assistant Connie leaves him by the end of Chapter 1. At the beginning of Chapter 2, Rivard’s earthy sense of humor excels with Connie’s brother’s wry description of his new domestic arrangements: “Connie living with him and his wife Noddy was okay,” but “the seat of the toilet always being down—that was not okay…” (5). Rivard’s blunt prose also offers other less humorous, more poignant passages: “The truth came at you sometimes like a voracious animal—locking its jaw onto your best intentions and clinging there forever” (33). Or maybe, “Yet amid this floe of icy realities [Nick] felt a tiny, unsteady and uncertain breath of warmth that he might have mistaken for hope” (61). However, at the same time, perhaps Rivard tries too hard to be poetic here. Note the use of both “unsteady” and “uncertain,” when one or the other might have sufficed.

Overall, while certain passages lift off the page, others are too weighty or awkward to be fully appreciated. Take, for instance, a romantic scene between Nick and his long-lost love Iris: “His breath came faster as his right hand slipped down and cupped the area between her buttocks” (120). As a mature woman, I had a hard time imagining such a crass gesture could indeed prove seductive (but my equally mature husband assures me it is indeed quite possible). In all seriousness though, the truth stands that this significant moment for the lead couple is rendered rather inelegantly, particularly given the long history of their abiding love and the lurking danger of their current affair.

Nick and Iris remain united in their struggle to avoid the violence of 1933 Chicago, but parts of their private experience ring hollow. Readers may not root for the handsome couple the way Rivard intends. In fact, as a woman, I find the male gaze of one of Rivard’s main characters, Liver Jack—Connie’s wry brother—to be perplexingly suspicious of the novel’s gorgeous heroine: “Iris’s eyes lost their focus. She turned away, grasped a dish towel and began wiping the bowl, slowly at first, then faster. Liver Jack and Noddy stared at her” (196). Granted, Noddy’s gaze here is stereotypically full of matronly concern, but it still seems, through Jack, Rivard is trying to cast doubt upon Iris’s intentions, depicting her as shifty or flightily anxious. This move might be an interesting rhetorical “trick,” but it is one that otherwise has no bearing on the larger narrative. To be fair, even though Rivard’s women are generally designed to fit the contemporary climate, none of them appear to be purposefully flattened. Rivard’s feistier women take their own risks, voice their own opinions, and enjoy their own pursuits—to include imbibing in speakeasies, pursuing sex of out wedlock, and generally demanding due consideration. Still, certain odd instances, e.g. the domestic kitchen scene above, cast vague male judgment without true clarity of purpose, thereby confusing the reader.

Likewise, the title of the novel doesn’t quite represent the purpose of the novel. Indeed, Nick is a magician, but his talent is underutilized. Nick’s art—and the concept of illusion itself—act more like bookends than vital threads pulled through the entire plotline. Nick performs some “tricks” to avoid scrapes, but Rivard shows his authorial hand far too conspicuously at the end of the novel when Nick says to brother-in-law Liver Jack, “Maybe it’s all an illusion” (215). I see how Rivard is trying to tidy all those loose threads, but the narrative itself resists (as it should) such tidiness.

The nefarious subplot of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak’s murder is yet another loose thread that is unsuccessfully pulled through to a meaningful conclusion. The issue of succession is resolved within the time allotted, but to what end? I applaud Rivard’s attempt to ground the novel in historical events, and his front matter is helpful in discerning whom is actually whom, but the murder in itself does not impact Nick’s story. And if readers are to empathize the way they should with Nick’s depression and desperation, these looser threads should be allowed to fall away more gracefully, or at least, less obtrusively.

Let me offer another quotation from nearer to the end of the novel, when Nick is in peril: “He had to come up with a story—a story like the patter that accompanied each trick in [his] act. A believable story—so good even the disbelieving…might buy the story—yet a story so far from reality it would cause you to giggle if you knew what was really going on” (198). Ironically, I often vacillated between “disbelieving” and “giggl[ing]” as I read this novel. While Rivard clearly understands the concept of the “believable story”—or as one of my writing mentors helpfully explains, its unquestionable “authenticity”—Rivard has more work to do with the application of this concept. I was willing to overlook minor typographical errors, but, as an attentive reader, I was not willing to overlook lapses in believability. After all, an illusion only survives as long as it remains safely undiscovered by the audience. Rivard put the “magic” into motion here, but he needs more rehearsal, more time alone with the “trick,” to pull the act off without revealing too much to the reader.

Yet, I remain hopeful for Rivard’s future “illusions.” Like Liver Jack says, “If the stars align and Lake Michigan don’t turn to hog slop[,] then maybe there’ll be room in the ward for a move up” (215). I certainly see Rivard “mov[ing] up” as he continues to practice his craft. To conclude, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another of Rivard’s remarkable crafts—drawing. The novel’s illustrations are gloriously refreshing. Such a pleasure to study Rivard’s renderings of his characters; from Nick’s “shock of black hair” (2)—see the front piece—to the “dark inside the [1933] train shed” (212-14), Rivard’s 15 sketches are both lively and comical, both realistic and cheeky. I expect to enjoy more of J.B. Rivard’s intriguing artwork, both in prose and image.

 3/5 stars

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J.B. Rivard
2016