Carter Beats The Devil: Unpacking Carter the Great
Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats The Devil, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.
Donna Bowman: Carter the Great was a real person, like so many of the characters Gold fancifully appropriates and extends in this book. We’re going to talk about the historical and technological setting of the book tomorrow, but let’s get into Charles Carter as the book’s protagonist now. I'm torn up by stories of children in peril, so Carter’s origin in being abandoned by his father and housekeeper for several days affected me deeply. The pillory and the brank serve perfectly as a motivation to develop the skills to escape any circumstance and master any peril. (And when the brank returned at the end, my heart just about stopped.)
It seems that the other characters who exist in Carter’s orbit—his women and his nemeses—have their traits determined by their roles in his life. In another novel, this might have bothered me quite a bit. But here, because Carter is not towering or superhuman, I found their outlines largely satisfying. Without Annabelle/Sarah and Phoebe, Carter is doomed to isolation—the sad mahatma who knows secrets he can never reveal. Without the triumphant-yet-flawed victory over Mysterioso, Carter could not begin to explore the tension between the effect of a moment and the sustainability of a whole life—a lesson that returns poignantly when he serves as the subject for a demonstration of television in the book’s epilogue, foreshadowing the many theatrical performers who found that TV simultaneously extended their audience and destroyed their careers.
Did Carter work for you as the center of this whirligig of a book? Did he become a character with whom you could identify, or did the secrets he keeps from us (as he must, lest we fail to share in the suspense) make him more of a stage prop than a person?
Ellen Wernecke: Well, now I just look like a heartless tool for admitting that Carter’s childhood trauma didn’t move me. I guess I should clarify: While the magnitude of Jenks’ actions were wildly out of proportion with his treatment by young Charlie and James, I didn’t find it useful as a device. It felt too nakedly like a savings account of trauma Carter would withdraw from, say, when he was trapped in a box and thrown in the harbor by a bunch of FBI agents.
That particular piece of his biography didn’t lock into place for me, but I still found Carter desperately endearing, in spite of all his secrets. What I liked about that childhood example was the emphasis on how isolated Charles and James were, and how that contributed to Carter’s fallibility in reading people. Scanning an audience, deciding whether to keep a trick in, he’s “the Great”; trying to determine the appropriate interval after which he should visit Phoebe Kyle again to give her her gloves back, he has no trick to deploy. When he doesn’t have a mark to hit, he’s ill at ease.
Zack Handlen: Probably my biggest problem with the novel was how it often felt like a series of sketches that never quite cohered as thoroughly as I wanted them to. That they cohered at all is largely because of Carter; I found him endearing and well-drawn, and the book suffered for me whenever he wasn’t onstage, so to speak. (Although I thought Griffin was a great creation as well.) Really, there’s so much thrown out here, you need a strong hero to hold onto, and I appreciated Gold’s willingness to honestly portray Carter’s grief without letting that grief become his defining characteristic. The stuff with his childhood didn’t really hook me until he and his brother were trapped alone, and their run-in with Jenks, along with their father’s complete unwillingness to acknowledge what had happened, made for a effective one-two punch. And the death of Carter’s first wife just about did me in. For me, the strongest parts of the novel focused on Carter’s attempts to rebuild his life after Annabelle dies, and that climaxed when the Secret Service agents trapped him inside a packing crate and threw him out to sea. It was a scene I've seen some variation on a dozen times before—the hero stuck in an impossible jam, finding inner strength, and developing a new lust for life because of it—but it was so well-done here that from then up until the final confrontation with Mysterioso, I was completely invested.
As for him being an actual person, I had no idea until I got to the end that he wasn’t just a product of Gold’s imagination thrust into a specific slice of history. It just seemed as much a distraction as anything; I didn’t need him to be real to care what happened next.
Rowan Kaiser: It’s interesting to me that it’s even a question of how much we liked Carter—I thought he was a fantastically developed character, and my favorite part of the book. It was only late in the book that Carter’s physical appearance started registering with me—when Griffin tracked down the wine-delivery guy at the President’s hotel, and he was described as medium everything, totally nondescript.
Which is, to a certain extent, how Carter’s personality could be described. He’s not actually very special. He’s a regular guy who is very good at his job. It’s just that his job is one of the coolest on the planet, of all time, even. Yet, since we view it primarily through his eyes—and it’s just his job, where he’s happy to mostly be his own boss—it all seems plausible and likeable. His anxieties both in normal situations, like meeting a pretty girl, and in extraordinary situations, like dealing with pirates on the high seas or breaking out of a box in the Oakland harbor, always seemed to be within my expectations for how people would react to such things.
Like Zack, I didn’t know Carter was actually a real person until after I’d finished the book, which makes me wonder how much of his personality is well-documented, and how much was Gold’s. Has anyone else done any reading on the historical Carter the Great?
Tasha Robinson: I’m with Zack on this one: I generally felt like Carter was a puzzle where the pieces never entirely fit together. Over the course of the book, we meet a lot of Carters: the frustrated child, the longing up-and-comer, the impractical spendthrift, the day-saving hero, the master showman, the clever planner and plotter, the debauched façade, the moony lover, the near-paralytic widower, and on and on. He’s practically a different man in each new scene. Which in a way is realistic—we all have different faces we put on in different surroundings and in different company—but was occasionally frustrating for me. I enjoyed some Carters much more than others, and I believed in some much more than others.
I think I had the hardest time with the fumbling-suitor Carter who never seems to have any idea what to do with a woman. It’s hard for me to reconcile him with the glib performer and the practiced conspirator who planned President Harding’s “death” and flawlessly duped the spy in his midst. I often got the feeling that Gold simply wrote Carter in whatever way he felt would work well for a given scene, and left it to us to do the mental math that would turn him into a single coherent character.
But that said, there were an awful lot of Carters in this book whose company I really enjoyed—chief among them the flawed but human hero who actually has to struggle fiercely to win, whether he’s facing off an older, crazier enemy as a child, or his own limits inside a floating box, or an old enemy who’s pinned him to a board with a knife. I’m not sure he always worked as the center of the book, but I enjoyed following Gold out to whatever edge he was taking the character at any given moment.
And no, I don’t know anything about the historical Carter either, but I think that’s just as well, given the book’s more fantastical elements. While I enjoyed knowing that the members of Fun In High Skule would go on to be the Marx brothers, for instance, I know enough about their history and personalities that I found their presence a little distracting. I didn’t need to take Carter the real guy into account along with all those other faces.
Todd VanDerWerff: Rowan, after finishing this book the first time, I skimmed a few items I was able to find on Carter both online and at the library, and I was unsurprised to find that Gold had greatly embellished Carter's life story. As I recall, he was only ever married the one time, though many of his magical feats, apparently, are taken from history (though who knows which ones). In particular, the intersection of him with television seems like it stretches credulity quite a bit, though that's a topic for another day.
I hinted at this yesterday a bit, but one of the things that makes this book work so well for me is that a large portion of it is about overcoming intense depression. What Carter goes through isn't just a grieving process, it's a process of a man finding that everything he's ever believed in both about himself and the world around him might not be true, a man coming unglued before our very eyes. To a degree, Gold disguises this, mostly in the investigation that Griffin undertakes (and Griffin is a wonderful character, too, I think), but it's always there. The floating box scene, which is maybe my favorite in the book, is, yes, a bit of a typical one for this kind of a book, but it's also a marvelous symbolic portrayal of what it's like to come out the other side of a deep depression, a time when it feels like you really might actually die. The second you realize you're not going to is an almost thrilling moment, and Gold portrays that well through his main character.