“The Magician’s Assistant” really took me back. If it’s well done, a book can evoke a former city like nothing else. I think Ann Patchett really nailed Los Angeles—and she did so by inserting the least likely of main characters, a second fiddle. Sabine is a magician’s assistant, of course, as the title proclaims, but usually L.A. focuses on the main players, the main actors, the real gangsters, the big dreamers and main schemers. Could she ever step up to the main role? Would she feel comfortable? Sabine plays out these questions against the backdrops of L.A. and Alliance, Nebraska. “If you’ve had good gin on a hot day in Southern California with the people you love, you forget Nebraska. The two things cannot coexist. The stronger, the better of the two wins out.” And which is the better, the stronger of the two? Which half of Sabine will tug ahead—the one that might consider being a magician, or the assistant? The one that might consider following through on the feeling of love toward another woman, or not?
I was lucky enough to get a chance to go to the Magic Castle when I lived in L.A. and just that scene, when Sabine takes her new family to an old haunt, brought back so much more. Part of it had to do with Sabine was also reflecting back on her own memories as she shows the visitors around. I remember sitting in the close-up room for sleight-of-hand magic and leaving with a feeling like I’d been transported away for hours. Patchett describes the Magic Castle as “the massive old house on the top of the hill, all the cupolas and leaded windows, the secret rooms and sliding walls. They made the place feel haunted by leaving it dusty and dim. Even at a quarter to twelve on a bright afternoon it felt like the middle of the night in there, dark wood and heavy blood-colored carpets, chandeliers turned low.” It was “forever a Hollywood set, a soundstage for some Dean Martin film.” These backdrops contract beautifully with the second half of “The Magician’s Assistant,” which is set in the snow and white and small town-ness of Nebraska.
But it’s the L.A. scenes that grabbed me. “Nights like this, the freeway as an amusement-park ride, a thrilling test of nerves and skill…It was dark and Sabine took the Coldwater Canyon exit over to Mulholland Drive. This was when she felt the most inside the city, when it was all broken down into patterns of lights.”
These are two brilliant backdrops—Nebraska, L.A.—that show Patchett’s insight and craft with words. The Wal-Mart scene in Nebraska alone is sharp. “On the curb was a soda machine, all drinks a quarter. Kitty leaned in towards Sabine as they pushed open the glass-and-metal doors. The warm air smelled like popcorn and Coke. It smelled like a carnival wearing new clothes…There was not one thing that was true about all the people in the store, but so many things repeated themselves, women with perms, men in dark blue jeans and cowboy boots, the dearth of color in their skin and eyes and hair. The people began to run together.”
It’s against these sharply distinct settings that Sabine discovers so much about her late husband’s past, and also whether she is able to step up to the role as Number One. That might sound trite, but Sabine’s grounded sensibility and Patchett’s keen eye keep it all very, very real.