Hooray for dollar books! I already wanted to read this, and the cover really cinched the deal, so when I found it in a bargain bin, it was a done deal, and in a fit of spontaneity I began reading it immediately.
What I did not expect, upon starting the book, was that if you were to cut out about two thirds of Carter Beats the Devil it would become a thriller. It would be considerably less enjoyable and entertaining than it is, but beneath all the quirk, the history, and the personalities there is an actual, honest-to-God intrigue and action plot that I did not expect from a book that was having "literary" type praised heaped upon it. Of course, if I've learned anything about contemporary writing from my years in a liberal arts writing program, it's that "literary" isn't really something you can pin down, and that my favorite books always straddle a good line between it and "genre" (which is similarly hard to pin down... so maybe there is no line to straddle).
Anyway, President Harding attends a magic show by Carter the Great, only to die later that night... and then the first third or so of the book is taken up with elaborating on Carter's back story, bearing almost no connection to anything else plot-wise. Nevertheless, it's a pretty amazing section, that could stand alone as its own novel--it's only between this first part and when the plot really kicks into high gear that the book drags a little, but not too noticeably. Throughout any part of the book though, be it Carter's childhood or secret service intrigue, every moment is peppered with amusing details and/or interesting emotional truths that keep the book enjoyable. The language itself is very matter-of-fact and straightforward, which works well to offset the tangents and loop-de-loops of what's actually being said.
Gold clearly did a ton of research for this book, and at times it seems as though a page can't go by with some little piece of historical detail. Sometimes it feels extraneous, like things are simply being crammed in because the author thought that they were too neat to let go, but it's hard to fault that too much when the tidbits themselves are pretty much always interesting. Sometimes the usage of real figures starts to feel a little smothering, and the need to fit into historical events (the plot largely concerns a certain invention) hamstrings one or two plot threads into being a bit unsatisfying... but thankfully there are a ton of them, so one or two aren't really missed.
All told, a really, really enjoyable book through and through--I read the last 150 pages in pretty much one (long) sitting, so that should say something. I wonder if it suffered at all from comparisons to Kavalier and Clay when it was new as, on the surface, it seems to have a lot of similarities. Once you actually read it though, it's definitely its own book, and a charming mixture of different genres. I look forward to reading Gold's Sunnyside.