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Southwest Book Review: 'Abracadabra' by David Kranes

“Abracadabra” is the latest novel by Southwestern writer David Kranes. Set in Las Vegas in the noir tradition of writing, the story begins with the mysterious magic show disappearance of an unassuming character named Mark Goodson. From there, the plot unfolds in twists and turns, mistaken identities, celebrity impersonators and all around chaos. “Abracadabra” is the focus of this month’s Southwest Book Review by Mary Sojourner.

David Kranes is an accomplished author, playwright and screen-writer; he founded and served for fourteen years as the director of the Sundance Playwright's Lab. His academic credentials are impeccable. He is also—and just as powerfully—a man who knows the voracious casinos and backstreet shadows of Las Vegas. In “Abracadabra,” he writes that the city which promises to hold your secrets, can also complicate a visitor whether or not they want to be complicated.

Vegas takes hold of Mark Goodson—a decent husband, loyal worker and all-round Boy Scout of a good guy. He disappears in the middle of one of Lance Burton's illusions in the showroom of the Monte Carlo Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.  His wife, Lena, watches him enter a big black box, and never return. She hires private eye, Elko Wells, to find him. With that, the labyrinth that is the not-so-secret side of Vegas opens.

Kranes' touch is so deft that the reader never gets lost in the multiple twists and turns that follow. He impeccably balances Goodson and Lena; Elko Wells and his associates—one of whom might or might not be Shaquille O'Neal; and the hapless Billy Spence, impersonator and identity thief who finds himself trapped by just how good he is at his act—and how careless.  Reading “Abracadabra” is like hurtling through a beautifully designed, sometimes scary, but always intriguing carnival fun house ride. Sights and sounds change paragraph after paragraph. Patsy Cline's “Crazy” plays over the same casino sound system on which the names of slot winners are bellowed. Jittering rainbow light plays over a lover's face.

Mark, Elko and Billy dash from the Mirage to the Bellagio to the Monte Carlo, double-back, lose their ways—and always are helped along by the casino staff. Kranes' respect for casino workers shines throughout this novel. He is not dazzled by the glitter that will turn out in the hard dawn, to be nothing but tricks of neon. He knows how hard the dealer, the croupier, the desk clerk and the cleaning men and women work. He is not impressed by the "whales," the high rollers who never really seem to catch on that when the game is over, they are chumps. “Abracadabra” is, in the long run—and, for a gambler, the long run is what counts—a love letter to a city few truly understand, and its workers, who few visitors bother to really get to know.

Mary Sojourner is the author of three novels: Sisters of the Dream Northland Publishers, 1989; Going Through Ghosts, University of Nevada Press, 2010 and 29, Torrey House Press, 2014; the short story collection, Delicate, Nevermore Press, 2001 and Scribner, 2004; essay collection, Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest University of Nevada Press, 2002 and 2004; memoir, Solace: rituals of loss and desire, Scribner, 2004; and memoir/self-help guide, She Bets Her Life, Seal Press, 2010. She has been a ten-year NPR commentator and now reviews books for KNAU’s Southwest Book Reviews. She’s the author of op eds and columns for High Country News, Yoga Journal, Writers on the Range, Matador Network and dozens of other publications. She was chosen as a Distinguished Writer in Residence in 2007 by the Virginia C. Piper Center for Creative Writing, ASU.
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