Sitting shirtless in his Greenwich Village apartment, David Blaine is telling me how he's learning to revel in the ''sense of astonishment'' he elicits from pedestrians after randomly stopping them to perform an illusion (the 29-year-old magician's hocus-modus operandi since his breakthrough 1997 TV special, Street Magic). Then, abruptly, he seems to sink into his own sense of astonishment. He grows quiet, slowly shifts his gaze to the window over my shoulder, and pinches his face into an awestruck expression, as if witnessing the Rapture. I have to resist swiveling my head to see if there are cherubim floating over Manhattan. He sits this way for many perplexing seconds before finally turning back and resuming the conversation as if nothing had happened.
I think, Is he putting me on? It's hardly the first time in our conversation that question has arisen.
It happened when he quoted Dostoyevsky, Rodin, and Socrates. And when he displayed the tattoo of Primo Levi's concentration-camp number on his arm. And when he showed me his bedroom, with the dictionary definition of the word martyrdom blown up and pasted over his bed (a tribute to his heroes: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Jesus). And every time he fixed me so intensely with his trademark dull-lidded stare that I sensed he was about to reach into my brain and yank out an ace of spades. Or a joker.
Blaine has just released his first book, Mysterious Stranger, part autobiography, part prestidigitation manual, and part history of magic (part treasure hunt as well: A gold sphere -- to be redeemed for $100,000 -- waits somewhere in the country for the reader who can decipher the clues hidden in the text and pictures). In discussing both his professional influences and his own magic, his recurring theme is misdirection, one of the illusionist's most valuable tools. And therein lies the occupational hazard of someone whose career is built on illusion: Even as Blaine tries to present a sincere, true self, his entire personality is suspect.
No one can debunk his accomplishments. Blaine's street-level, low-tech approach recaptured the art of magic from the lovely-assistant-introducing, tiger-taunting domain of Siegfried, Roy, and David Copperfield. ''If a guy with a top hat and handlebar mustache walks up to you wearing a sign that says 'The Amazing Zamboli' and does a card trick for you, well, you kind of expected that to happen,'' says David Sandy, the president-elect of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. ''But when [Blaine] comes up to you with a T-shirt and sandals, it almost looks like real magic. It seems like an ordinary guy doing miraculous things.... He got laypeople talking about magic.''
But as Blaine sweeps away the wand-waving artifice of the Amazing Zambolis, is he quietly building a less-visible brand of artifice? He's fond of quoting the 19th-century French master magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, who said, ''A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.'' I ask Blaine (born David Blaine White) directly: Is the David Blaine people see really you, or a character? ''Well, I'm not really a magician,'' he replies. ''I'm just me. The guy who does magic isn't really what I am. This is what I am.''