My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A small bit of personal trivia to kick this mini-review off: I’ve actually had this book sitting on my shelf for a few years. Early in our relationship, my now-husband & I were both totally obsessed with the TV show Deadwood. Within a few months, we both ended up giving the other books by Ricky Jay, who was in the first season. (I gave him Jay’s Journal of Anomalies; he gave me this book. We’re darling, aren’t we?) It wasn’t until we recently watched the documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay that I finally decided to read the book instead of just skimming through its varied histories & lingering over the color plates.
Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women is a cultural survey of performers that earned a living on vaudevillian or quasi-spiritual circuits. But, far from being a dry collection of bios, Jay outlines these histories as “sketchily explained secrets” (to borrow his own description of a similar compendium) with wit & a distinct, charming style. Each section focuses on a certain kind of talent (sword-swallowing, fire-walking, reading minds) and reveals just enough to cast any doubt on supernatural prowess while still allowing a reader to appreciate how an effect could be constructed. After recounting these wonders, Jay also ends up stating the fates of these performers. Doing so is practical & correct since our author is diligently preserving these histories. But closing each story with the performers’ deaths grounds the fantastical stories in a moving way. A trick ends & a life finishes with a satisfying sense of closure.
There is something old-world about this book as well. I don’t use that adjective simply because of the European backgrounds of some of these personalities. The thorough histories stand in contrast to our constant American interest in the new, the novel, & the youthful. Learned Pigs is not too unlike Montaigne’s equally comprehensive essays. The Acknowledgements in the back of the book lists many citations & collections for curious readers to use in their own research. As for me, Learned Pigs has at least convinced me to pick up Augustine’s City of God, because I need to read that quote from the last chapter myself in order to believe it. And to maybe not let books like Mr. Jay’s sit on my shelf unread for so long.