With Tales of Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, Ricky Jay Conjures Up a Memorable Book

updated 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Magician-author Ricky Jay dazzled editors and guests at a Random House tea last year when he executed a bogglingly complex series of chess moves, while simultaneously computing cube roots and reciting Shakespeare. But the magic act the folks at Random House really wanted to see Jay pull off was making the 10,000-copy first printing of his book, Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, disappear from bookstore shelves. Helped by some rapturous reviews, Jay, 38, has done the trick. So many of the elaborately illustrated $30 Pigs have been bought that the book has gone into its third printing. "I'd have to say this surprises me," says Jay. "I never imagined how receptive the critics would be. It shows the subject merits some attention. It is unexpected."

Just about everything in Pigs is unexpected. Subtitled "Unique, Eccentric and Amazing Entertainers: Stone Eaters, Mind Readers, Poison Resisters, Daredevils, Singing Mice, etc., etc., etc., etc.," Pigs is an irresistible tome that details the rise, demise, fame and shame of history's most gifted freaks, geeks, wizards and quacks. Jay brought a scholar's passion for accuracy and telling detail to his 10 years of research. And he knows his stuff. Widely regarded as America's high priest of prestidigitation in "close-up magic," Jay performs astonishingly subtle sleight-of-hand effects with small props like cards, and cups and balls.

The cast of Pigs includes Chabert the Human Salamander, who liked to cook raw steaks by carrying them into a blazing oven himself and standing there until they were done to a turn. There's Matthew Buchinger, the 18th-century German who played a dozen instruments, performed magic and was a master calligrapher—although he had no arms or legs and stood only 29 inches tall. And then there's Toby the Sapient Pig, who played cards, read minds and wrote his own autobiography. Jay's energetic blend of warmth, absurdist humor, skepticism and compassion keeps his work from turning into an exploitative Ripley's rip-off. The New York Times Book Review called Pigs a "quite remarkable book" that "belongs within reach of anyone who wishes to rejoice over the strange quirks and glorious victories of our species by peeking into a world that is totally unknown to most of us and, at first glance, not at all believable."

Jay, who for two years has been curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts near his home in West Hollywood, is a believer. "I love these characters," he says. "They have an amazing richness psychologically." Tracking documents and sources was, at times, "like a detective story unfolding." Separating fact from fiction proved not only paradoxical but difficult. "A good magician won't let you do that," says Jay. "But when you're so good a performer that people, in retelling over the years, invent things you've never done, this isn't faulty reporting. It's a remarkable presence that has made the performers succeed."

Jay found success as a boy in Brooklyn, coached by his grandfather, an amateur magician named Max Katz. Jay, who never explains his effects because "the demystification of magic would kill it," is cryptic about his parents. He says only that "my father was the Formica king of Long Island, and my mother was the daughter of a Bengal Lancer in India."

Young Ricky was performing by age 7. After moving with his parents to Elizabeth, N.J., Jay left school to take his act on the road. He finished high school and enrolled at Cornell in the late '60s. In the meantime he moved from a formal stage act, where he wore toreador pants and magically produced doves, to a hipper, "crazy, non-linear" stage shtick wearing fringe vest and waist-length hair. About 15 years ago he left the stage to pioneer the then relatively obscure field of "close-up magic" in more intimate surroundings.

He has long been obsessed with the low-life subculture of carnies and "seedy magicians with tattoos and gold lamé hair." With little prompting, he will lapse into the staccato, Cosell-like rap of a carny hustler. "Show time, circus time. See the world's only livin' morphodite, Adam and Eve, boy and girl, brother and sister, all in one. It will expose itself—not to be rude or vulgar—but to show you one of Mother Nature's more keyurious mistakes." He pauses and resumes in a normal (for him) tone. "They busted the hermaphrodite for indecent exposure. It was a guy in drag. Those endless bizarre events mold you as a performer. The demimonde became more fascinating than the beau monde."

Jay discovered his authorial voice in 1977 with Cards as Weapons, a quirky, semi-satirical treatise on the magic and martial arts applications of playing cards. He broke new ground by bringing close-up magic to the youth culture with opening act gigs for Emmylou Harris, Cheech & Chong and the Knack. Jay also served as a technical consultant on films like The Natural and The Escape Artist, and he is currently preparing a one-man show for Broadway.

His more conventional passions include nonstop reading, plays, movies, boxing, Thai food, the Lakers, learned friends and nonflammable women. (Jay is unmarried.) But what he really seems to have needed all these years is a past life. "I'd have been more easily understood in Elizabethan times," says Jay. "All my life I have been on the fringes of this world and have been seen as something of an eccentric. I am eccentric. It seems people are now willing to attach some label of respectability to me. That is not displeasing. It is rather gratifying. But it has made me no less eccentric."

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