Books

The Flabbergaster

The Magic Christian’s hero has one goal: to shake every pillar. So did Terry Southern.

Terry Southern with dollar bills flying around his head.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Jerry Schatzberg and Newbird via Getty Images.

This essay is the introduction to the 60th-anniversary reprint of Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian, out now from Grove Press.

What, we might well ask on this occasion, is a compelling reason to write about a 60-year-old novel?

A) It expertly dramatizes and illuminates a bygone era.

B) It addresses universal human concerns and still speaks to us across the chasm of years.

C) It was innovative or influential in its style, form, or technique.

D) In some way it anticipated the future and now, across the chasm of years, it strikes readers with profound thematic relevance and resonance.

E) It includes an anecdote in which a jet-black big cat, a “terrible panther or dyed jaguar” wearing a disguise of prosthetic poodle fur, is registered in a preeminent American dog show at Madison Square Garden, where it ravages a number of its smaller, milder competitors.

Answers A, B, C, and D are all fine. They’re just fine, probably correct. They are dignified and respectable responses, deserving of a practical prize. I’m thinking a tote bag, or perhaps a mug with a quote from John Greenleaf Whittier. Answer E, meanwhile, is perverse and whimsical and entirely the best answer. If you answered E, if you believe that any book in which the word dyed modifies the word jaguar must be recelebrated across the chasm of years, then you win the grand prize—the Guy Grand Prize—which you are now holding in your fortunate hands. Congratulations.

The episode with Claw—that is the name of the fraudulent dog—is not essential to the plot of Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian primarily because The Magic Christian has no plot. What it has is Guy Grand, its mythic protagonist. Corpulent Grand is an American Obscenity, wickedly wealthy, bored, amoral, mischievous, and radically committed to disturbance. Grand’s project, which is in a sense Southern’s project, is to shake pillars, all of them.

The Magic Christian is a kind of anthology of mischief, Grand’s Greatest Hits. The recounted exploits are held together very, very loosely by a Day in the Life of a Tycoon: From mysterious origins Grand takes a train to Wall Street, then takes a car to his house on the Upper East Side, where for most of the book he enjoys tea and gossip with two elderly aunts and, as if they weren’t quite enough, a visitor named Ginger Horton, who, yes, is “wearing an immense trapeze sunsuit and carrying her Pekinese.” The dog’s name is Bitsy. Near the end, Grand rises to take his leave over the protestations of the women. “Flux, motion, growth, change,” he says to justify his departure. He’s on his way to Canaveral to “see what’s shaking on the space- scene, so to speak.” So much for plot.

We never do find out what mayhem Grand causes at the Kennedy Space Center but we are certainly encouraged—and by the end somewhat equipped—to imagine it. That’s because throughout the book Southern has strung Grand’s hijinks together like bright beads on a bracelet. Repeatedly, we see the wizard behind the screen, “engaging” others—i.e., paying them off—to create spectacle and havoc. Grand’s the one who has arranged for Claw to spill blood at the hallowed dog show, just as he once arranged for television actors to acknowledge, during live broadcasts, that their material was insipid. He has pranked entire industries—motion picture, television, automotive, advertising, sports, restaurant, newspaper, publishing. For kicks he pays a guy to smash crackers with a sledgehammer, another to eat a parking ticket. He wears colorful plastic animal masks and, at his throat, a diamond the size of a nickel. He pays for 20-cent hot dogs with $500 bills. He is a dumbfounder, a flabbergaster. His schemes render others “fairly agog.” And the considerable messes he leaves behind are always cleared with more money.

The narrative logic of the novel is not causation or escalation but proliferation and accretion. Through his numerous discrete capers Guy Grand emerges as a god of venality and entropy, serially interfering in the affairs of American mortals. The Magic Christian is whimsically mythic in both its characterization and structure. Indeed, the novel reads something like the Labors of Hercules, if Hercules were wealthy and recalcitrant and overweight with a “large balding bullet-head.” In his way, 53-year-old Grand, the “fat radish-man,” is as powerful as Hercules, but he uses his immense power to create disorder. Take, for instance, their differing approaches to manure. While Hercules ingeniously washes the manure from the Augean stables, Grand ingeniously purchases manure from Chicago stockyards and arranges for it to be placed in a hot vat, into which he stirs 10,000 $100 bills and onto which he scrawls “FREE $ HERE.”

Southern has little interest in the mechanisms of conventional realism. We know nothing of Grand’s childhood, the sources of his fortune, or his romantic life, and we are not invited to speculate about his motivation. Grand transcends traditional morality and psychology. He is not a malicious villain, but neither is he a crusading vigilante. All of his capers are revelatory, but he does not seem particularly inspired by revelation. One gets the sense that Guy Grand does what he does because he can. Because his wealth and his imagination allow it. Wealth—it’s as true today for the Koch brothers as it was for the ancient pharaohs—is a kind of magic. And while readers know that Grand is an elemental force, the prime mover of capital, most witnesses of his elaborate whims do not. The average spectator does not know why the champion boxer is mincing effeminately around the ring or why the streets of New York are clogged by Devil Rockets, new convertibles that are larger than Greyhound buses. Grand is, in contemporary parlance, dark money.

Southern is a big-game hunter and his trophy-to-page ratio in The Magic Christian is unrivaled in American satire. One by one, in rapid succession, he gleefully mounts the heads of nearly all of our sacred cows. This aggressive satirical campaign, however, does not account for much of the book’s enduring charm and power. I’m reminded of Chekhov’s retort to the claim that his literary approach was too objective. “You would have me, when I describe horse thieves, say: ‘Stealing horses is an evil,’ ” Chekhov wrote. “But that has been known for ages without my saying so.” Analogously, at this point we don’t require a writer to inform us of the greed and coarseness and decadence and violence and deception and vapidity that exist beneath our self-congratulatory ideals. While it is always difficult to be funny, it’s not very difficult to be righteously correct about the absurdity of American culture. Southern is an expert marksman, but his targets are not, 60 years out, necessarily surprising. Satirical force can degrade over the decades, certainly. Further, the American satirist today can hardly compete with reality. As I write this introduction, former baseball player Jose Canseco, a man most famous for injecting himself with steroids and hitting home runs, has indicated his eagerness to be considered a candidate for President Donald Trump’s chief of staff. That I would not at all be surprised if Conseco were appointed is evidence for the obsolescence of satire. As is, for that matter, Donald Trump.

Ultimately, I’m less interested in the question of a novel’s continued relevance than in the question of its continued peculiarity. The Magic Christian has durable value not because of its savage rectitude about issues of contemporary concern but because as a piece of art it is so energetically odd. I admire this novel for its playful profusion and plenitude, its glorious ability to generate extravagant comic material from its basic ingredients. E.L. Doctorow once wrote that “excess in literature is its own justification,” and though he was writing about Melville, he could have been writing about the fecund imagination of Terry Southern. Southern’s diagnosis may be grim but the novel feels celebratory, giddy with invention, creation, and possibility. In his outsize ambition, Grand very broadly fits the archetype of the American schemer and dreamer, but there has never been a striver quite like him. He is an artist of disorder and he is a genius of whimsy, as is Southern. Genuine whimsy is endangered and it deserves our protection. Where we find whimsy, we should issue and reissue it. Reading The Magic Christian, I have roughly the same feeling that I might have watching the world record in the pole vault. The book is a feat, is what I mean to say. It’s an exhilarating and excessive feat of the human imagination.

Remember Claw, the disguised beast that so violently disrupted the dog show? Southern describes the animal as hungry and “cross as a pickle.” Now that’s a simile with some flair. I initially assumed that cross as a pickle was a folksy idiom from yesteryear, a once-common phrase that’s now become fresh and strange again through the years. I looked into it, though, and as far as I can tell, it was never a thing that people said. It was always weird.

The cover of The Magic Christian by Terry Southern.
Grove Press

“Introduction to the 60th-Anniversary Edition of The Magic Christian” copyright © 2019 by Chris Bachelder. Excerpted from The Magic Christian copyright © 1959, 1960 by Terry Southern. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.