Never turn down a chance to meet a one-hundred-year-old man
Ricky Jay, a dear friend of his once observed, can’t remember anything that’s happened after 1900. This isn’t a commonly noted problem for someone born in 1948 (or someone born around 1948, since, like so many of the basic facts of Jay’s life, it’s not entirely clear what is true and what isn’t). The sleight-of-hand artist, author, actor, and curator isn’t just conversant in the minutiae of earlier eras. In an ideal universe, he admits, he might have inhabited the eighteenth century—although he doesn’t see it as dreadful that he’s found himself straddling the twentieth and twenty-first.
Ricky Jay’s natural home is the world of deception—of conjurers and con men, of illusion and the art of the confidence game. With a simple deck of cards, he can perform unparalleled acts of prestidigitation. He is a direct descendant of sleight-of-hand masters Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller. Early on, however, his fame grew out of a wild signature pose: wielding cards as weapons. Jay could throw cards for speed (90 miles per hour) and distance (190 feet) and, up close, could pierce watermelons. He was also an obsessive collector of arcana from the history of magic, weaving long-forgotten tricks and patter into his act, then writing about his discoveries at length, in one-of-a-kind volumes such as Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women (1986) and, more recently, Celebrations of Curious Characters, a collection of forty-five short essays he first produced for NPR.
Jay’s more recent renown, however, might come from film and television. Thanks largely to David Mamet, a longtime friend and collaborator who first cast him in House of Games (1987), Jay developed a parallel career as an actor. His roles have included a classic James Bond villain (techno-terrorist Henry Gupta in Tomorrow Never Dies), a PI schooled in magic lore (Last Days), and a narrator whose syntax and style seem lifted straight out of a Ricky Jay tale (Magnolia). He was, for its inaugural season, a central part of the HBO series Deadwood, both as a writer and an actor (in the role of card dealer Eddie Sawyer).
In person, Jay seems immune to an interviewer’s workaday concerns. He’s hopeless with dates. He’s hazy on personal details. When we met in Los Angeles last year—early spring, at a small Japanese restaurant in the Bel Air hills near his home—there was always the sense that the facts were only part of the point. Listen to his stories, about gamblers and magicians and cheats, and you’re led into a world where true fictions feel like the way things might really be.
III. ONE WORD: DECEPTION
THE BELIEVER: Your new book, Celebrations of Curious Characters, seems to present a very powerful contradiction in your work. On the one hand, there’s this real fealty to the facts, to historical truth, to examining forgotten or obscure entertainers and artists. On the other hand, there’s the presentation of contemporary, real-life experiences, either yours or others’. But how do we know what is true and what isn’t? Is it just a writerly conceit? The tale of an eccentric historical character is woven into a story from Ricky Jay’s life to create an effect? To reveal a nugget about existence? To entertain? To create a wonderful illusion? Some of these stories are certainly true. But are they all true? Did, say, a screwdriver really fall from the rafters during the shooting of a Bob Dylan video and lodge directly into your hand?
RICKY JAY: [Silence]
BLVR: Have I got this entirely wrong?
RJ: No, no, no. This is interesting to me on many levels. You are the first nonpartisan reader of the book that I know of, so that’s interesting. But I’m hearing feedback from you that’s fascinating. And I like what I’m hearing. I like what you’re telling me it’s making you think about. [Long pause] Well, I’ll tell you: the stories are real. But I’m reluctant to tell you that. I love the idea that you’re not sure whether the screwdriver in the guy’s tool belt fell on my hand or not. And yet it never occurred to me for a second to make that up. That was a really traumatic experience in my life. But the video [“Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”] with Dylan is real. He sent me the gold record [begins to laugh], or was it a Purple Heart [laughs]? It was a really traumatic event. But the second you question it, I kind of love the idea that you think it might be fictional. Even though that’s not what I’m trying to do at all. It’s kind of like going to the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It’s so wonderful. But that’s what it makes a lot of people do, it makes people wonder, Is what I’m seeing real or not?
If I had to pick a single word to say what my interest is, it’s deception. In performing magic, you have the most honest form of deception there could be, because you’re saying to someone, “I am going to deceive you.” And you do. So someone’s who’s willing to do that is honest. And so when I’m telling you a story, that’s really my story; I’m telling you that story honestly—in the same way. And yet I enjoy the fact that you question it. But I hope it doesn’t make me seem less of a writer to say I didn’t anticipate you questioning that.
BLVR: Perhaps I’m being naive. When I’m reading what is ostensibly nonfiction, and I encounter a first-person narrator who claims he’s the author, I tend to take him at face value.
RJ: Ah! So here’s an interesting thing. When I say to you, “If you hear me say something onstage, it may be part of a construct, much more than in a book.” Gosh, I don’t know—this all implies that there is some planned way that I approach things. And that’s just not the case. Each of the pieces in this book were approached as individual pieces. Rather than: if I write so many pieces with me as a character, and then tell stories that are a little difficult to believe, can I leave the impression for a reader that maybe I made this up? It doesn’t exist on that level for me. But that’s one of the fascinating things about works of art, that people bring to it material from their own experience. If you’d never read Sebald or if you hadn’t read Borges, if you hadn’t read people who play with that line, you might never have thought that. It makes me think of Carlos Castaneda, actually. That with all his books, there was that big question: did he make up Don Juan? Is Don Juan real or not? I remember when people initially talked about that, I remember saying, “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me.” He’s either writing wonderful fiction or he’s presenting research. On the other hand, if I were an academic, particularly in anthropology, I could have serious problems with him making this up and then getting other people believing it was real. But as a reader, it couldn’t matter to me less—because he’s written something that’s really appealing to read, particularly in the days when I was reading that. So I get it. I get it to go both ways: I get wanting to analyze it, and I get not wanting to analyze it.