Book Review: “Amoralman: A True Story and Other Lies” — A Young Magician Turns to a Life of Crime
By Daniel Gewertz
Magic is a performative pursuit as demanding as high-wire acrobatics — yet a vocation lacking respect, perhaps for good reason.
Amoralman: A True Story and Other Lies, by Derek DelGaudio. Alfred A. Knopf, 237 pages, $27.
Allow me to begin with the title. Amoralman is written as one word, so a mere addition of either one space or two produces polar opposites: Amoral Man. A Moral Man. Derek DelGaudio spends much of his highly readable book showing us an essentially decent man grown dangerously dependent on the safety net of secrecy and the lure of bending reality. It is no coincidence that his book’s title toys with the alphabet as if it were a guilefully shuffled deck of playing cards. And those spaces he plays with? They are the invisible parts of the title, as unseen as the secretive mechanics of any successful magic trick.
Amoralman focuses nearly half its length on the six tense months DelGaudio spent as a crooked card dealer in an elaborate scheme of theatrical deception. To use the parlance of poker, DelGaudio was a “card mechanic” or “bust-out dealer.” (Perhaps a by-product of its cagey nature, poker owns a plethora of insider terms, which the book explains with asterisked footnotes.) In more recent, far more licit years, DelGaudio is known for writing and starring in a one-man New York stage show, In & Of Itself, directed by Frank Oz. (The film version, co-produced by Stephen Colbert, is available on Hulu.) In addition to working behind the scenes at Disney, he’s created “The (Space) Between,” a conceptual magic shop. While sleight of hand is still at the heart of his endeavors, DelGaudio also flirts with the notion that identity itself is an illusion. His fan base is real enough, though. Tom Hanks provides the first gushing rave on the book’s inside cover, novelist Neil Gaiman the second.
Many show-biz stars start out as boy magicians. The impressive list includes talk-show hosts Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Arsenio Hall, as well as actors Orson Welles, Steve Martin, Woody Allen, Daniel Radcliffe, Jeff Goldblum, and numberless other seemingly born show-offs, most of them insecure youths longing for attention. But the author of Amoralman is a truly rare bird: a boy who stared into mirrors and practiced for hours each day, laboriously learning magic tricks and card manipulation as a private obsession. Even after his beleaguered adolescence, DelGaudio found it uncomfortable to display his impressive maneuvers on stage, or even to acquaintances. While lonely boys have long learned magic to impress strangers and gain friends, DelGaudio seems attracted to the art of sleight of hand simply as metaphor: he is addicted to its secrecy, its stealth ways of hiding in plain sight. Early on, it might have been his salvation. The book’s first three chapters, devoted to DelGaudio’s formative years, are the only ones to excavate a deep dive into the full character of the man. But these heartrending chapters are revelatory enough to make us root for him throughout.
At 16, DelGaudio’s mother was seduced and impregnated on her first and only date, and then cruelly abandoned. She refused the advice of her alcoholic mother to procure an abortion. DelGaudio depicts his mother as a loving, honest, and communicative parent, a strong woman who became one of the first female firefighters in Colorado. When Derek was six, he woke up one night after midnight and stumbled upon his mother mid-embrace with a female lover. Soon, the woman was ensconced in their tiny apartment. The trio lived in Colorado Springs, known as the most Christian town in the state. When his school-chums asked young Derek who that “other woman” was, the naive boy blithely explained to his peers that he had “two mommies.” That one admission made him a pariah, and a consistent victim of bullies. It was the last time in his life he told a dangerous truth; secrecy became his survival tactic. The good Christian youths of Colorado Springs threw bricks at the DelGaudio windows and wrote “Faggot” on his mom’s car. “My mother had taught me the value of truth, but she neglected to teach me the cost,” he writes.
Whenever classmates noticed Derek idly manipulating a deck of cards and asked him to do a trick, he always refused. As the author explains, he didn’t want magic to be a “bridge to connect to others. I wanted a fortress to keep them out. Performing would draw unnecessary attention to me, and it would expose my interest in secrecy. If people knew I was capable of keeping secrets, they might wonder what else I was hiding.” He wrapped a handbook on legerdemain (sleight of hand) in a book cover of The Wizard of Oz, so he could read it covertly. (“Even my secrets have secrets,” the boy wrote in his diary.)
Though the author does not stress his search for a father-figure, it is obvious from the moment he meets Walter — the owner of a magic shop — that he’d found one. Magic shops survive by selling tricks, trinkets, and Halloween costumes, but Walter was once a professional magician, and he was happy to train a boy as talented and tirelessly devoted at Derek. Before long, the teenage Derek outpaced his teacher. Walter and his protégé would, on occasion, travel the 70 miles to Denver to meet a few of the legendary figures of the fading craft of magic. Through Walter, Derek then met an even more unlikely father figure: Ronnie, a skinny, middle-aged, African American professional card cheat, a rare genius, but one without a reputable skill. (In the Mafia-run era of Las Vegas, Ronnie worked as both a legit and “bust-out” dealer.) The two made an odd pair, but they shared the same phenomenal skills.
Magic is a performative pursuit as demanding as high-wire acrobatics — yet a vocation lacking respect, perhaps for good reason. Magic’s reprobate brother, cardsharping, is the older profession. According to DelGaudio, magicians historically acquired their best tricks from this furtive, illicit category of card-manipulation. By the turn of the current century, the “analog” craft of cardsharping was threatened by the electronic revolution, but Ronnie still discovers enough high-paying jobs to survive.
When Ronnie is imprisoned for breaking parole, Derek reluctantly agrees to do his old friend a difficult, dangerous favor: he takes over Ronnie’s wildly lucrative gig as a bust-out dealer so that his friend’s job can be resecured, post-prison. After a decade finessing skills best used illicitly, Derek finally enters a life of crime.
The stakes were ridiculously high at the elaborate swindle that DelGaudio refers to as “the mansion.” Derek is nearly a poker neophyte. Without any background as an “on the square” dealer — a very tough gig to learn on the fly — he is forced to use his skills at card manipulation to cheat rich, poker-addicted Los Angelenos. The conniving Kafkaesque setup at “the mansion” ultimately resembles the convoluted con-game theater of David Mamet’s film House of Games.
The moment-by-moment tensions are brought matter-of-factly to life with adroit storytelling skill. Yet DelGaudio’s inner journey is far less distinct. After all: who is he at 25? Brought up by an honest, caring, courageous mother, by the time of the illicit portion of his life DelGaudio was living with a respectable, intelligent, loving girlfriend. Secrets once protected his life; now they imperiled it. Which side of this talented young man was the real Derek? The closest the writer gets to the psychological heart of the issue is a one-liner uttered by his girlfriend at the end of Derek’s ultrahazardous six-month adventure. “I hope you found what you were looking for,” she said, surprising him.
The book is an easy, delightful read. But except for a few passages, it skates past the penetrating gaze and the psychological quarry. Nearly half the book is devoted to the complex poker scheme in the L.A. mansion, a setup that came replete with a gourmet kitchen, an expert cook, cocktail waitresses, a real cop at the door, and one real champion poker player invited per night — who frequently won a fair amount, deceived into thinking he’d done so licitly. Derek thought he was one of the very few on the inside of the scheme. But, to some degree, he was being scammed as well.
At points in the book’s second half, I wished for a peek into DelGaudio’s wider world, a break from the endless table. Did the author think his personal life was off-limits, or just not germane to the tale? That a non-cardplayer like me remained glued to the page is the best proof that the man can write. I did find myself wondering if the use of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave — summarized in the first pages of the memoir, and then reintroduced as a hallucinatory state during Derek’s terrifying last night in the mansion — is inserted to class up the book. As a reader, I want to be intrigued, but not played for a sucker. In the world of grifters, the wisdom is “the story is sold, not told.” There is a cost to swallowing whole. I do believe the revelation DelGaudio is abruptly overwhelmed by while watching an old legendary magician at work: after his 10 years of magic apprenticeship, Derek suddenly understands he has no desire to trick people. None. Acting, which he has tried, “fools” the public in order to create meaning. Magicians trick their audience just for trickery’s own sake. They are not crooks, per se — their object isn’t theft, but seduction: to mimic the mysteries of nature and make adults feel like children. But DelGaudio is unexpectedly repulsed by the idea that a magic act’s deception is an end unto itself. Although the author’s back-cover photo makes him look pretty damn guilty, by the end of the book I believed DelGaudio’s desire to be a good man. I had to ponder it: his mindset is not so plainly revealed. But one can believe he needed to dip deep into subterfuge before he could alter his life course for good.
Allow me to end with the book’s subtitle: A True Story and Other Lies. The phrase may be a type of harmless hoax, a sexy taunt. I hope and suspect there are very few lies here: though one big one eventually announces itself as such, perhaps just to justify the subtitle’s saucy claim. Unlike in a novel, an unreliable narrator of a memoir renders the work pretty dubious. A trick. Like all of us, I’ve been a mark. I trust I’ve been told a story here, not sold one.
For 30 years, Daniel Gewertz wrote about music, theater and movies for the Boston Herald, among other periodicals. More recently, he’s published personal essays, taught memoir writing, and participated in the local storytelling scene. In the 1970s, at Boston University, he was best known for his Elvis Presley imitation.