The Spirit Cabinet
Vintage Canada, 2000
First published in The Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
I have not been, I have to admit, all that familiar with Paul Quarrington’s work. I knew that he was a Toronto author with a humourist bent, vaguely associated him with the Toronto music scene, the movie, Whale Music (starring Maury Chaykin) and, I think, often fuzzily confused him with Dave Bidini. I hadn’t, however, read any of his work. After making my way through his latest ouevre, The Spirit Cabinet, all I can say is “that’s going to change!” Quarrington’s on the “A” list now — a collection of authors whose past work I am willing track down, and whose future work I look forward to with eager anticipation.
In The Spirit Cabinet, Quarrington tells the tale of Jurgen Schubert and Rudolpho Thielmann, who, at the story’s outset, are enjoying fabulous success as the stars of a schlocky magic show in Las Vegas. The partners (in life as well as on stage) are, in fact, the highest paid act in that glittery city. As fate would have it, they have just spent a few of their millions acquiring the McGeehee collection – a dusty pile of magician paraphernalia, books and other arcana originally assembled by Harry Houdini himself. Chief among the pieces is the legendary Davenport Spirit Cabinet originally used by William and Ira Davenport — two 19th century magicians whose reputations as mediums did much to help fuel the spiritualist revival in the States. Predictably, shortly after the collection is delivered to “das haus” (a Disney-esque monstrosity whose construction was unfettered by the constraints of either economy or good taste) weird things begin to happen.
Having clawed their way up from lives of near destitution in the streets of Munich, Jurgen and Rudolpho are now living the American dream – basking in daily adulation and rolling in obscene wealth. Rudolpho, a canny ex-lion-tamer with an eye for “the biz” is the brains behind the act, Jurgen the taciturn talent. The truth is, Jurgen’s a little short on talent – at its heart, the show is a collection of hoary magic show chestnuts, but, pumped full, as the spectacle is, of the mega-wattage hype that the city is famous for, no one seems to notice, least of all the audience. This is, as far as Rudolpho is concerned, just fine. The mildly dim-witted Jurgen, however, has always yearned (and perhaps been chosen) for something greater, has kept a tiny window in his heart open to the possibility of real magic, real wonders. It was he who insisted on bidding for the McGehee collection, he who spends his time pouring over the ancient books, and he who first feels the effects of the spirit cabinet’s mysterious powers. It is left to Rudolpho to make a profound decision in the name of love.
Scattered around the two principles are a whole host of madcap characters – the exquisite Miranda, a “thaumaturgical assistant,” with the flawless body, Preston the Magnificent, Jr. (or, as he privately refers to himself, Preston the Adequate) a magician living forever under the shadow of his more famous father, Dr. Merdam, the wildly obese physician of incongruous daintiness who has “ideated” himself slim, the cadaverous Miss Joe, the nightclub manager who gave Rudolpho and Jurgen their start in Munich, Kaz, the master magician with the execrable breath, who lusts after the cabinet himself, and, not the least, Samson, an albino leopard with a surprisingly sophisticated and philosophical interior life. Albert Einstein, I should mention, makes a cameo appearance.
The attempt to caricature denizens of the Las Vegas community in general, and its community of magicians, in particular, might seem, on the surface, redundant. It is to Quarrington’s greater glory that he manages to do just that while, at the same time, creating vivid, sympathetic and thoroughly engaging and human characters (well except for Samson, who is, nevertheless, a very well-rounded cat). He has an observational comic’s eye for the ridiculous, married to a Robertson Davies-like ability to preserve the quirkiest character’s essential dignity, while at the same time, sending them up with considerable precision and glee. The result is a comic-tragic, satiric, fantastical love story, that will encourage you, between laughs, to examine some of your basic hypotheses about life and reality.
“Yet another examination of the Houdini phenomenon?” one might (quite understandably) sigh. “Talk about hoary chestnuts!” In truth, one IS tempted to point out to the cadres of Houdini-philes who gather each Halloween (the anniversary of Harry’s death) in breathless anticipation of their hero’s triumphant return from beyond, that, in fact, he’s never really left. One might also assume that any book which draws, yet again, on the Houdini mystique, has little new to offer. One should be careful about assumptions though. As the book’s many practitioners repeatedly point out, the success of any magic trick depends on just that human tendency to make assumptions and be wrong. No trick – The Spirit Cabinet is pure magic!