Barth Anderson’s second novel, The Magician and The Fool, is marketed as a thriller in the DaVinci Code mode, with the hidden history behind the Tarot being the focus. Indeed, the novel is fast-paced and full of spectacular deaths, chases, and secret societies. But Anderson flips the script of the traditional thriller, and creates something much richer and more mysterious.
Jeremiah Rosemont is an former art historian who has left his tenure track career to hide out in South American, living the carefree existence of a nomad. Part of his leaving academia has to do with his frequent run-ins with his former friend John C. Miles, a whacked out Timothy Leary type who believes in the mystical properties of the tarot and its occult origins. In the past, Miles and Rosemont were a kind of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid team of tarot readers in Austin, at a punk-hippie club called the Circus of the Infinite Wow. Both had considerable power in divination, but where Rosemont didn’t truly believe in his prophecies, Miles clearly did. When Rosemont became a respectable academic, Miles made it his mission to heckle Rosemont wherever he made a presentation. The final insult came when Rosemont gave a career-building talk, one that would have led to a prestigious position, and Miles embarrassingly appearred in the audience, ruining his chances. Rosemont is in Nicaragua when he receives a mysterious summons to Rome, accompanied by an airline ticket. Upon his arrival, he is plunged head-first into a whirlwind conspiracy, having to do with authenticating a series of paintings that may be the basis for the modern tarot deck. Within hours, he witnesses a horrific murder and experiences strange phenomena, such as sudden shifts place and odd visions.
In Minneapolis, a homeless man known only as Boy King begins to have visions of his own. Boy King is a tarot reader who lives in an abandoned warehouse, hiding from someone—or something. Boy King is a broken man, and at first, it is unclear whether the complex patterns by which he lives his life are real or a projection of his psychosis. He is a sorcerer of sorts, surrounding himself with protective talismans and ghosts. When we meet him, he has made a conscious effort not run anymore, and face his destiny, whatever it may entail. Boy King’s sections of the novel are slightly more mystical than the Rosemont sections. They are told in a feverish prose style that emulates the enigmatic nature of tarot readings.
Back in Rome, Rosemont—“the fool”—learns of the occult beginnings of the tarot tradition, which predates the cards themselves. It goes back to ur-Eygptian gods, includes the Fall of Troy, and the ancient fight between Romulus and Remus. He learns these chunks of secret history while on the run from two sinister figures who are searching (and murdering) for the mysterious paintings—DiTrafana and Transom.
The connection between Rosemont and Boy King, and the fate of the paintings makes for suspenseful reading. The resultant novel, though, is less like a commercial thriller than it is like ‘secret history’ fantasies of Elizabeth Hand, like Waking the Moon and Mortal Love. Like Hand’s work, Anderson’s supernatural occurrences aren’t just pyrotechnic window dressing. They are an exploration of the effect myth has on the modern world. Anderson uses leitmotifs through his work—the image of brothers echoes through out the novel, and Miles/Rosemont have a rather more complicated relationship that’s hinted at. At one point, the openly gay Rosemont falls in love Miles. Creatures of myth wander through the streets of Madison, WI, Rome and Minneapolis in both hidden and overt forms. The miasma of elder gods haunts the text. The magic system is wonderfully perplexing. It involves pockets of time, sudden shifts in locale and states of consciousness, and unexplained but intriguing terminology. The tricks that the author-magician plays are persuasive, even if they are trippy and open-ended.
In one chilling scene, Rosemont sees a horrible vision in a mirror:
“A gathering of many colored planes representing the angles and curves of his face stared back at him. The face in the mirror, though, was not Rosemont’s, not remotely…One moment his reflection looked reptilian or birdlike, but then, as the face turned, it seemed suddenly simian, and then the polychromatic mosaic of planes and surfaces frowned into a yawning circle of flower petals, before the light in the bathroom shifted…”
At the same time, Anderson adds humorous juxtapositions. One of the key scenes occurs in a Mexican chain restaurant, referred to as ‘the Chi Chi’s of the Damned.’
The Magician and the Fool is thoroughly enjoyable, and imbued with a rich sense of wonder. What starts out as a juggernaut thriller subtly and skillfully turns into study of magic in the modern world.