Book Spotlight: Joe Posnanski’s ‘The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini’

A close examination of the escape artist we won’t let die

EARLY IN The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini (October 22, Avid Reader Press), Charlotte-based writer Joe Posnanski runs down all the ways the culture won’t let Houdini die. People to this day make films about him, name software programs after him, reference him in hip-hop monikers and hip-hop songs, name paint colors after him, gaze longingly at bedroom wall-mounted posters of him, and, well, write books about him. The man died (physically) nearly a century ago. There’s a meager list of popular entertainers from his age who still command, and demand, space on the stages of our imaginations. Who else? Mark Twain? Charlie Chaplin?

So, Posnanski asks: Why Houdini? The longtime sportswriter—this is his first non-sports book, of five—performs his own kind of straitjacket escape in the book’s 316 pages. The world does not need another book about Houdini, as he acknowledges. But Posnanski, juggling short, incisive chapters, dissects not only the life but the idea of Houdini. He blends biography with close examination of the art of magic, often illustrated by a revolving troupe of Houdini obsessives whom Posnanski pursues with an obsessiveness that rivals theirs. The myth that surrounded him in life and continues to seduce acolytes around the world is Houdini’s greatest stunt, a skein of fact, fabrication, and illusion—and the essential truth of the man.

Put another way: Houdini was a con man—though an escape artist without peer, he was generally a lousy magician—and often a vindictive bastard. He reserved his strongest venom for anyone who tried to upstage him. Whoever did was usually humiliated in public. “He was ruthless,” the renowned author and illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer tells Posnanski. The book begins with an account of a night in 1915 when Jess Willard, then the world heavyweight boxing champion, heckled Houdini from the balcony of the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, and Houdini responded, “I will be Harry Houdini when people have forgotten you were ever a heavyweight champion.” (In Houdini’s defense, he wasn’t wrong.)
Houdini wasn’t the first or last to chase immortality through fame. But Posnanski lays bare how he did it with unmatched ferocity and an uncannily modern talent for manipulating the gears of publicity. He trafficked in fake news and viral content more than a century ahead of time, planting stories in the newspapers and sometimes writing them himself, the better to ensure he was always the hero of his own story. Why Houdini? He was the future. He may still be. —Greg Lacour

Categories: Arts + Culture, The Buzz