A defining quality of modern life is that characters no longer have to be curious to be celebrated. Reality television is full of people whose only real talent is self-aggrandizement and the willingness to conform to one of a small handful of pre-established personality types. And at least most of those folks have to compete with each other for viewers’ attention. Luminaries like the cast of Jersey Shore or the Queen of Preen, Paris Hilton, have captured the attention of millions without doing much more than making bad choices while under the influence of videotape. It isn’t the end of the world—the closer the present comes to Andy Warhol’s predicted 15 minutes, the sooner everyone will get bored and move on to something else—but it’s understandable if all these talentless bozos shrieking in the limelight makes people nostalgic for the days when individuals had to be truly distinctive to pull in the crowds.
For those missing the past, Ricky Jay’s slim new volume, Celebrations Of Curious Characters, should provide some relief. The printed version of a yearlong series of four-minute essays Jay wrote and read on National Public Radio, Celebrations is a collection of reminiscences on oddities, freaks, con men, and preternaturally gifted children. Like Clifton R. Wooldridge, a Chicago detective and master of disguise who dubbed himself “America’s Sherlock Holmes.” Or Count Joseph Boruwlaski, “The Celebrated Polish Dwarf,” friend to the cream of French society in the mid-1700s. Or Daniel Wildman, a kind of conjurer apiarist whose control over bees allowed him to wow audiences and inspire poetry.
Jay himself wouldn’t be a bad fit for these pages. A skilled sleight-of-hand man who’s written a dozen books on magic and side-show show-offs, Jay is probably most familiar as a character actor who adds his dry, sardonic tones to movies like Magnolia, The Prestige, and a large number of David Mamet’s films. (Mamet wrote the introduction for this book.) It’s easy to imagine him narrating Celebrations, and his writing is entertaining and charming throughout. By design, the essays are more sketches than portraits, and some are more successful than others, but even the book’s worst entries are entertaining. It’s a slight book, more notable for its appearance than its depth—which, considering the subject at hand, is entirely appropriate.