Stephanie Zacharek reviews Kenneth Silverman's book "Houdini!!!: The Career of Erich Weiss".

Published November 6, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

The worst thing about most biographies is the long list of "begats" you have to wade through before the main subject even appears in a baby bonnet. Thank God for Kenneth Silverman. By page eight of his engaging biography of Harry Houdini, he's got the legendary escape artist and illusionist all grown up and doing eye-popping tricks. From then on, Silverman barely pauses for breath: the great Houdini frees himself from endless pairs of handcuffs (sometimes while almost completely nude -- and in a police station, no less!), escapes from the claustrophobic confines of a water-filled milk can, wriggles out of a straitjacket while dangling upside-down high above the ground from a skyscraper, and gleefully exposes shyster psychics. Between stunts, he writes books and letters filled with flowery prose and spelling errors; lies and boasts bodaciously; makes friends with fellow luminaries Jack London, Sarah Bernhardt and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; and amasses the largest library of magic books in the universe.

Most biographers inject too much of themselves into their narrative. Silverman, a perceptive and straightforward writer, hangs back too much. Meticulously and painstakingly researched, "Houdini!!!" sometimes reads too much like an artfully detailed laundry list of the performer's exploits. Without imposing, Silverman could have easily given Houdini's story a little more shape and shading than he does. When he explains how heartbroken Houdini and his wife, Bess, were about not being able to have children, and how instead they doted on a pet dog, his lack of hand-wringing (not to mention his refusal to psychoanalyze) makes their situation all the more touching: "They carried with them in touring a small white dog, Charlie, sometimes smuggling him across national borders by using one of [magician] Ching Ling Foo's conjuring methods (although, Houdini said, 'scared to death for fear of detection')."

But "Houdini!!!" still works, and its simplicity gives it a kind of spare elegance. Even after amassing mountains of research, Silverman (who grew up across the street from the Manhattan tenement Houdini lived in as a boy, and who once worked as a magician himself), is still amazed and mystified by Houdini's feats, and he has us asking, too, over and over again: How did he do it? Three exclamation marks at the end of a book title may seem like overkill, but Houdini, the old rascal, earned every one of them.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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