The Man From Beyond

Gabriel Brown­stein
  • Review
By – October 24, 2011

Gabriel Brown­stein, win­ner of the Pen/​Hemingway Award for his col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, The Curi­ous Case of Ben­jamin But­ton, Apt. 3W, explores the col­or­ful world of New York City in 1922 in this debut nov­el. Using the actu­al friend­ship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Har­ry Hou­di­ni, he offers a sto­ry that exam­ines the spir­i­tu­al­ist move­ment, which was pop­u­lar at that time. After los­ing his son in World War I, Doyle became a pro­po­nent of spir­i­tu­al­ism. Hou­di­ni felt that the demon­stra­tions of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the dead were mere the­atri­cal tricks and pub­lished pam­phlets expos­ing the false mediums. 

Doyle, con­vinced that a strik­ing medi­um named Margery has super­nat­ur­al pow­ers, invites Hou­di­ni to one of her séances. Mol­ly Good­man, a young reporter hop­ing for her first big sto­ry, attends hop­ing to learn the medium’s true iden­ti­ty. Raised in a sec­u­lar Jew­ish fam­i­ly, Mol­ly is mourn­ing her brother’s untime­ly death, but her sto­ry is far less inter­est­ing than the Houdini/​Doyle con­flict. Brown­stein is at his best when describ­ing New York City and its diverse inhab­i­tants. His vivid descrip­tions of Houdini’s famous escape from a sealed box dropped into the Hud­son Riv­er and the antics at Margery’s séance are fas­ci­nat­ing, but the sto­ry rush­es to a cli­max too quick­ly and the vil­lain is not suf­fi­cient­ly devel­oped. Read­ers will find the his­tor­i­cal details com­pelling and the con­flict between sci­ence and spir­i­tu­al mat­ters is thought-pro­vok­ing in today’s polit­i­cal climate.

Bar­bara M. Bibel is a librar­i­an at the Oak­land Pub­lic Library in Oak­land, CA; and at Con­gre­ga­tion Netiv­ot Shalom, Berke­ley, CA.

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