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Believe It or Not

JAY'S JOURNAL OF ANOMALIES: Conjurers, Cheats, Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters, Impostors, Pretenders, Sideshow Showmen, Armless Calligraphers, Mechanical Marvels, Popular Entertainments, By Ricky Jay, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 176 pp., $40

November 11, 2001|THOMAS LYNCH | Thomas Lynch is a poet and essayist. His most recent books are "The Undertaking," "Still Life in Milford" and "Bodies in Motion and at Rest."

There are books that come along at just the right time. In a world that has become so sad, too savage, more somber than a species ought to inhabit without relief, the appearance of "Jay's Journal of Anomalies" offers the wary and heartbroken and deeply vexed rest, if only momentarily, from the terrible news of the day. These are divertimenti, crafted by a master and perfectly pitched in luxuriant bombast.

"Superlatives arrest our attention. We observe with fascination the tallest, the shortest, the widest, the deepest, the fastest, the strongest.... While I have long written about anomalies, in dimension as well as deed, I have traditionally placed more emphasis on acquired prowess than physical exaltation. Siamese twins, for instance, were worthy of discussion only if balanced on their heads, reciting Goliardic verse and providing their own accompaniment on violin and dulcimer." So Jay tells us in an opening chapter, "Edward Bright: The Gazing Stock and Admiration of All People." Edward Bright, at 5 feet, 9 inches and 622 pounds, was "a successful grocer from Malden in Essex, descended on both sides from families 'greatly inclined to corpulencey."' Do tell.

The immediate appeal of "Jay's Journal of Anomalies"--see above for subtitular litany--is that it brings to an ever-widening audience and preserves for posterity not only the 16 issues of the journal aforementioned, published exquisitely (if irregularly) between 1994 and 2000, but the irregularly gifted, hyperbolically self-challenging and extraordinarily multi-ticketed, multi-tasking spectacle of the sui generis Jay, whose one-man show (available in print, on film and forthcoming to the Broadway stage) and the secrets to its oddments and mysteries may age and die in the flesh someday, as others of his species are given to do with predictable consistency, but whose voice (thanks be to cinema and Farrar, Straus & Giroux)--its bombast and homage, hype and excitements, blather and wisdom--will live on in the gorgeously illustrated and acid-free pages of this companion volume to his earlier and much heralded, much prized, much reprinted cult classic, "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women." Rolling Stone described "Learned Pigs" and its author as: "a dizzying encyclopedia ... a magician, lecturer, actor and library curator, Jay is the country's leading weirdologist." He is also a writer, the real thing. After all the brouhaha and braggadocio, it is language--lush, shimmering, abundant language--that floats the boat in which Jay stands on his head, juggling swords, dancing on his thumbs, pulling nickels from behind our ears and rabbits out of invisible hats. His imagination "reads" like one well-wrought run-on sentence in which the accumulation of detail and devise circles back on the reader like a great roundabout performance.

"Cavanagh was found in good health and spirits, one reporter proclaiming that 'he wore the bloom of a fox hunter.' A medical examiner found a commendable pulse rate of 72 and pronounced 'his tongue foul, his mouth moist, and his breath exceedingly offensive.... He showed no symptoms of a wasted frame, his muscles are exceedingly well-defined, and altogether he might be described as being of an iron build of a body.' The room, furniture, door, and window were all scrutinized and most importantly, 'no traces of ingesta or egesta were to be discovered."' This from "The Ultimate Diet: The Art and Artifice of Fasting," which describes the exploits of one Bernard Cavanagh of County Mayo, who had gone to London in the decade of the Irish famine to display his ability to eat nothing and drink nothing for "five and one-half years!"

"In September of 1841, Cavanagh was engaged at the Large Assembly Room in Theobold's-road, overlooking Lamb's Conduit Street. He was confined in a garret some sixty to seventy feet off the ground, the room measuring fifteen by 9 feet by 7 feet. After eleven days, on Sept. 15, the exploit was hailed as a success by Drs. Kenny, Brooks, Richmond and others. But their approbation was not universal. The chamber had not been sealed at either the fireplace or the window, thus allowing not only ventilation but also the possibility that comestibles had been hoisted up from the street below."

Avoiding the lately fashionable axioms of minimalization and techno-speak, Jay allows the reader to ramble in his diction's overgrowth of detail and adjectives for surprises, conjectures, possibilities, echoes and arcana. His is the fantastical lexicon of Mencken and Flann O'Brien, John B. Keane and Gabriel Garcia Marquez--given the voice of a latter-day P.T. Barnum or W.C. Fields.

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