The character of Harry Houdini, based upon the famous magician and escape artist of the early 20th century, is introduced early in the novel when his car breaks down near Mother and Father’s home, and he has lemonade in their parlor while it is being repaired. Although Houdini is extremely successful, performing amazing escape acts across the United States and Europe, he is clearly uncomfortable and self-conscious around the wealth and upper class status of Mother and Father. Despite the almost superhuman difficulty of some of his escape acts, he remains frustrated that he is not excelling in what he considers to be the ‘real’ world. “For all his achievements he was a trickster, an illusionist, a mere magician” (Doctorow 82). A second generation Jewish immigrant, Houdini perpetually feels that he is an outsider in American society, and is constantly aspiring to acceptance among those that he feels are genuinely engaged in historical achievements.

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From the first appearance of Houdini, early in the novel, it is evident that he is both impressed and intimidated by the upper classes. He is torn between yearning to belong to them and feeling some contempt for their superficial and exploitative qualities. When he is hired to perform at an heiress’s party and finds himself among the performers from a circus sideshow that she has hired as well, he performers for the circus people and refuses to perform for the heiress’s guests.

Houdini seems to be obsessed with death, performing progressively dangerous escapes. When his mother dies, he is devastated and starts consulting ‘spiritualists’, hoping to make contact with her. He becomes fascinated with theories about the afterlife and reincarnation, all in an attempt to keep some part of his mother alive, if only in his mind. His intense interest in death and life is reflected in his work, which becomes increasingly inseparable from his private life. The Houdini portrayed in the novel is a brilliant artist, but a tortured and deeply dissatisfied man.

Coalhouse Walker Jr. is an enigmatic and self-contained character who suddenly appears at the family’s home to try to reunite with Sarah and their son. He is a successful jazz pianist in New York City, making enough money to dress impeccably and to own a new automobile. His relative wealth and dignified manner are strange to the family. “It occurred to Father one day that Coalhouse Walker Jr. didn’t know he was a Negro” (Doctorow 135). While the cause of his separation from Sarah is never described in explicit terms, the reader is led to assume that he abandoned her during her pregnancy, leading to her horrifying attempt to bury the newborn alive and flee. Sarah, deeply hurt and angry at his betrayal, is slow to forgive him, but eventually yields to his courtship and agrees to marry him. The vandalism of Walker’s automobile by the racist firefighters, which leads to Sarah’s murder at the hands of the police and Walker’s subsequent terrorist activity, has the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Given Walker’s sense of pride and his quiet assumption of his self-worth and dignity, he cannot behave in any other way. Whether this is a flaw or a virtue, it is an integral part of who he is. Sarah, recognizing that he will die in pursuit of reparation for the damage to his car (and more importantly, for the disrespect to his person), takes the desperate action of appealing to the Vice President, who happened to be in town. She is mistaken for an assassin and fatally injured by the police.

For Coalhouse Walker, this is the final insult from a system that he felt had always tried to diminish him. Sarah and their child had been his future; after her death, he became a walking dead man, focused only on a violent crusade to extract revenge on those that he felt were responsible for the tragedy. Coalhouse knows that whatever else happens, he will not survive his attempt to punish the transgressors. He also recognizes a certain justice in his doom, as he also understands that his intransigence and pride contributed to Sarah’s death. Ultimately, after the fire chief that provoked the vandalism of his car is forced to repair it in front of him, Walker voluntarily walks out of the Pierrepont Morgan Library, that he has been holding hostage, into a hail of police bullets, ready to meet his fate.