By Daniel Gewertz
Magic is a performative quest as demanding as high-level acrobatics – but a vocation that lacks respect, perhaps for good reason.
Amoralman: A True Story and Other Lies, by Derek DelGaudio. Alfred A. Knopf, 237 pages, $ 27.
Let me start with the title. Amoralman is written as a word, so a simple addition of a space or two product of polar opposites: Amoral Man. A moral man. Derek DelGaudio spends much of his very readable book showing us an essentially decent man who has become dangerously dependent on the safety net of secrecy and the lure of distorted reality. It is no coincidence that the title of his book plays with the alphabet as if it were a slyly shuffled deck of playing cards. And these spaces with which he plays? These are the invisible parts of the title, as invisible as the secret mechanics of any successful magic trick.
Amoralman focuses nearly half of its duration on the tense six months DelGaudio spent as a crooked card dealer in an elaborate scheme of theatrical deception. To use poker parlance, DelGaudio was a “card mechanic” or a “chess dealer”. (Perhaps a byproduct of its suspicious nature, poker has a plethora of insider terms, which the book explains with asterisk footnotes.) In more recent and much more lawful years, DelGaudio is known for writing and performing in a new solo. York Stage Show, In and in itself, directed by Frank Oz. (The film version, co-produced by Stephen Colbert, is available on Hulu.) In addition to working behind the scenes at Disney, he created âThe (Space) Between,â a conceptual magic store. While knacking is always at the heart of its endeavors, DelGaudio also flirts with the idea that identity itself is an illusion. His fan base is pretty real, however. Tom Hanks provides the first gushing rave on the inside cover of the book, novelist Neil Gaiman the second.
Many show biz stars start out as magician boys. The impressive list includes talk show hosts Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett and Arsenio Hall, as well as actors Orson Welles, Steve Martin, Woody Allen, Daniel Radcliffe, Jeff Goldblum and countless other seemingly born show-offs, most of them insecure. of them. young people eager for attention. But the author of Amoralman is a truly rare bird: a boy who gazed into mirrors and trained for hours every day, laboriously learning magic tricks and card manipulation as a private obsession. Even after his beleaguered teens, DelGaudio found it uncomfortable to display his impressive maneuvers on stage, or even to acquaintances. While lonely boys have long learned the magic of impressing strangers and making friends, DelGaudio seems drawn to the art of knacking simply as a metaphor: he’s addicted to his secret, his stealthy ways of hiding in the dark. for all to see. At first it could have been his salvation. The first three chapters of the book, devoted to DelGaudio’s formative years, are the only ones that delve deeply into the wholeness of man. But these heartbreaking chapters are revealing enough to make us root for him throughout.
At 16, DelGaudio’s mother was seduced and impregnated on her first and only date, then cruelly abandoned. She refused her alcoholic mother’s advice to have an abortion. DelGaudio portrayed his mother as a loving, honest and communicative parent, a strong woman who became one of Colorado’s first female firefighters. When Derek was six, he woke up one night after midnight to find his mother in a hug with a lover. Soon the woman moved into their small apartment. The trio lived in Colorado Springs, known as the most Christian city in the state. When his school mates asked young Derek who this “other woman” was, the naive boy blithely explained to his peers that he had “two moms.” This admission alone made him an outcast and a constant victim of bullies. It was the last time in his life that he was telling a dangerous truth; secrecy has become his survival tactic. Good young Christians in Colorado Springs threw bricks at DelGaudio’s windows and wrote “Fagot” on his mother’s car. âMy mother taught me the value of truth, but she neglected to teach me the cost,â he writes.
Whenever his classmates noticed that Derek was lazily handling a deck of cards and asked him to take a trick, he always refused. As the author explains, he didn’t want magic to be a “bridge to connect with others.” I wanted a fortress to keep them out. The show would needlessly draw attention to me and expose my interest in the secret. If people knew I was able to keep secrets, they might wonder what else I was hiding. He wrapped a handbook on the go (sleight of hand) in a book cover of The Wizard of Oz, so that he can read it secretly. (âEven my secrets have secrets,â the boy wrote in his diary.)
Although the author does not insist on his search for a father figure, it is obvious as soon as he meets Walter – the owner of a magic store – that he has found one. Magic shops survive by selling Halloween tricks, trinkets, and costumes, but Walter was once a professional magician, and he was happy to train such a talented and tirelessly devoted boy to Derek. Soon after, teenage Derek passed his teacher. Walter and his protÃ©gÃ© occasionally traveled the 70 miles to Denver to meet some of the legendary figures of the declining art of magic. Thanks to Walter, Derek then met an even more unlikely father figure: Ronnie, a skinny middle-aged African-American professional card cheat, a rare genius, but without renowned skill. (During the Mafia-run Las Vegas era, Ronnie worked as both a legitimate dealer and a dealer.) The two were an odd pair, but they shared the same phenomenal skills.
Magic is a performative quest as demanding as high-level acrobatics – but a vocation that lacks respect, perhaps for good reason. Magic’s outcast brother, cardharping, is the oldest profession. According to DelGaudio, magicians have historically gained their best tricks from this stealthy and illicit category of card manipulation. At the turn of the present century, the âanalogâ profession of card sharpening was threatened by the electronic revolution, but Ronnie was still finding enough well-paying jobs to survive.
When Ronnie is jailed for breaking parole, Derek reluctantly agrees to do his old friend a difficult and dangerous favor: he takes over Ronnie’s hugely lucrative job as a drug dealer so his friend’s job can be reinstated afterwards. the prison. After a decade of refining skills best used illicitly, Derek finally enters a criminal life.
The stakes were ridiculously high during the elaborate scam DelGaudio calls “the mansion.” Derek is almost a poker neophyte. Without any experience as an “on-the-spot” dealer – a very difficult job to learn on the fly – he is forced to use his card handling skills to fool wealthy, poker-addicted Los Angelenos. The Kafkaesque configuration complicit in “the mansion” ultimately resembles the convoluted gambling theater in David Mamet’s film. Games house.
The tensions from moment to moment are made concrete by a skillful skill in storytelling. Still, DelGaudio’s inner journey is much less distinct. After all: who is he at 25? Raised by an honest, caring and courageous mother, during the illicit part of his life, DelGaudio was living with a respectable, intelligent and loving girlfriend. Secrets once protected his life; now they have put it in jeopardy. Which side of this talented young man was the real Derek on? The closest the writer gets to the psychological heart of the matter is a line spoken by his girlfriend at the end of Derek’s six-month ultra-dangerous adventure. âHope you found what you were looking for,â she said, surprising him.
The book is easy and enjoyable to read. But with a few passages close, he skates in front of the penetrating gaze and the psychological career. Almost half of the book is devoted to the poker complex in the LA Mansion, a setup filled with a gourmet kitchen, an expert cook, cocktail waitresses, a real cop at the door, and a true guest poker champion by night – who often won a good sum, tricked into thinking he had done it lawfully. Derek thought he was one of the few who was inside the scheme. But, to some extent, he was also scammed.
At certain points in the second half of the book, I wanted to take a peek into the larger world of DelGaudio, a break from the endless table. Did the author think his personal life was off limits or just not relevant to the story? That a non-card player like me has remained glued to the page is the best proof that a man can write. I wondered if the use of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave – summarized in the first pages of the memoir, then reintroduced as a hallucinatory state on Derek’s terrifying night in the mansion – is inserted to categorize the book. As a reader, I want to be intrigued, but not played for a sucker. In the crook world, the wisdom is that “the story is sold, not told”. There is a cost to swallow it whole. I believe the revelation that DelGaudio is suddenly overwhelmed by watching a legendary old magician at work: After 10 years of learning magic, Derek suddenly realizes that he has no desire to deceive people. Nothing. The acting, which he tried, “deceives” the audience to create meaning. Magicians deceive their audiences just for their own pleasure. They are not con artists per se – their object is not theft, but seduction: to imitate the mysteries of nature and make adults feel like children. But DelGaudio is unexpectedly repelled by the idea that the deception of a magical act is an end in itself. Although the author’s cover photo makes him look pretty damn guilty, at the end of the book, I believed in DelGaudio’s desire to be a good man. I had to think about it: his state of mind is not so clearly revealed. But you might think he needed to dive deep into the subterfuge before he could change his life course for good.
Let me end with the book’s subtitle: A true story and other lies. The phrase can be some kind of harmless hoax, a sexy taunt. I hope and suspect that there are very few lies here: although a big lie does ultimately announce itself as such, perhaps just to justify the sassy claim of the subtitle. Unlike a novel, an unreliable narrator of a memoir makes the work quite dubious. A thing. Like all of us, I was a brand. Hope I was told a story here, not sold.
For 30 years, Daniel Gewertz written about music, theater and films for the Boston herald, among other periodicals. Most recently, he has published personal essays, taught memoir writing, and participated in the local storytelling scene. In the 1970s at Boston University, he was best known for his Elvis Presley impersonation.