Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales by Penn Jillette
An unconventional weight loss tale from an unconventional personality—Penn Jillette tells how he lost 100 pounds with his trademark outrageous sense of humor and biting social commentary that makes this success story anything but ordinary.
Legendary magician Penn Jillette was approaching his sixtieth birthday. Topping 330 pounds and saddled with a systolic blood pressure reading over 200, he knew he was at a dangerous crossroads: if he wanted to see his small children grow up, he needed to change. And then came Crazy Ray. A former NASA scientist and an unconventional, passionate innovator, Ray Cronise saved Penn Jillette’s life with his wild “potato diet.”
In Presto, Jillette takes us along on his journey from skepticism to the inspiring, life-changing momentum that transformed the magician’s body and mind. He describes the process in hilarious detail, as he performs his Las Vegas show, takes meetings with Hollywood executives, hangs out with his celebrity friends and fellow eccentric performers, all while remaining a dedicated husband and father. Throughout, he weaves in his views on sex, religion, and pop culture, making his story a refreshing, genre-busting account. Outspoken, frank, and bitingly clever, Presto is an incisive, rollicking read. (via Goodreads)
Presto!: How I Made 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales is not a diet book. Indeed, in the “Disclaimer” section, Penn Jillette makes it clear: don’t take medical advice from a juggler. Instead, this is a food narrative.
We all have a food narrative: what we eat, when we eat, why we eat, and how we eat. For some, the narrative is short and simple. For others, once health and social conventions get mixed in, it’s a bit more complicated. It’s impossible to read Presto! and not think about my own food narrative.
When I was kid, I bought (or was given) a planner that had a fill-in-the-blank section at the beginning. One of the questions was: “When my family gets together, we _________ .” And I filled in “eat.” Which is a true thing. While my grandparents only lived down the street, any get-together usually involved some sort of food. Fourth of July? Burgers, hot dogs, baked beans, potato salad, chips. Birthdays? Dinner out, cake and ice cream. Christmas? Cookies, cheese & crackers, other assorted nibblies. Random Friday night? Random dessert, or maybe a trip to Taco Bell. Food remains a social thing for me. If I want to spend time with a friend, it’s over lunch or dinner.
I was a skinny kid. That changed when I hit puberty. I stopped running around outside and started spending more time sitting and reading like a good student and a proper adult. My hormones weren’t particularly kind to me either. My family are all big people; I figured that it was fairly inevitable that I would be too. I ate what I thought was a healthy diet (a friend of mine in college boggled at how I seemed to innately balance my meals) and didn’t shirk walking, but my weight gradually increased. It didn’t really bother me, but it also really did.
One of the things that struck me inPresto! is that at his heaviest, Penn Jillette didn’t really feel that he was particularly unhealthy. He was on several blood pressure medications. He was suffering from sleep apnea. He didn’t feel particularly good, but it wasn’t an unlivable state. He had accepted that he was a big guy (he uses a more alliterative blunt term) and that he was playing the hand that genetics had dealt him. That is, until he suffered a serious health crisis. Penn, never one to do things in halfway, decided to take a pretty extreme measure: a diet that included a two week potato fast to jump start his weight loss and reset his sense of taste.
Presto! is written in cable-TV-Penn style, which means it’s solidly NSFW. If you’ve watched Penn & Teller: Bullshit! or ever listened to the Penn’s Sunday School podcast, you know what I mean. Presto! is full of sex, no drugs, rock & roll, and occasionally magic as well as Penn’s crazy diet journey. Some of the stories felt repetitive to me, probably because I do listen to Penn’s Sunday School, which is the only place Penn’s really mentioned his weight loss prior to this book. And, as much as I generally like him, Penn’s bombastic tone wears on me occasionally. I might have put this book down a couple of times, but then I’d come on a chapter where Penn talks about being alive for his kids or how insanely better he feels instead of only existing in a “livable” state. It was those smaller/bigger notions that made Presto! work for me.
The way I remember it, there was no particular reason why decided to lose weight aside from I had weight to lose. During my last summer in college, I was working full time on my feet and lost about 10lbs. The next semester I took a physiology class and met Eric. In a sort of parallel to Penn and Ray Cronise, Eric wondered, based on what we’d learned in class about metabolism, if I could lose weight by eating a high-protein low-carb diet. This was about five years before the Atkins diet became popular. I lost another 45, down to about 120lbs. My weight loss numbers here are approximate because, like Penn and like so many others, I didn’t really weigh myself at my heaviest. Also let me say here: Eric never asked me to lose weight, never pressured me. It was mostly, to my recollection, an experiment.
Seventeen years later, I don’t eat the same high protein diet and I’ve, of course, gained some of the weight back. Right now, I’m about 133±2 depending on how active I am. I don’t think there’s one right way to change your food narrative or sustain your narrative if health or looks or whatnot gets in the way. I know that I like running around and playing ultimate frisbee. I can’t imagine that would be as fun if I were carrying around an extra 40lbs. I know I also like donuts and beer and having dinner with family and friends. My narrative, like all of our narratives, continues on.
Publishing info, my copy: eARC, Simon & Schuster, Aug. 2, 2016