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Book review

Lethem makes bad bet on how to tell tale of backgammon hustler


We can read the title of Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, “A Gambler’s Anatomy,’’ in two senses.

First, the book offers an anatomy in the tradition of Robert Burton’s brilliant, gargantuan 17th-century work, “The Anatomy of Melancholy.’’ That is to say, Lethem’s (much shorter) novel offers a look into the inner structures of gambling: how we do it, why we do it, what habits of mind and character it cultivates within us.

Like Burton, Lethem implicitly argues that to offer a true anatomy of one thing — in Lethem’s case, backgammon; in Burton’s, an emotion — is to begin to talk about many other things. If we think critically about gambling, for instance, we begin to think critically about deceitfulness and honesty, chance and will, self and performance: “Backgammon’s beauty was its candidness. In contrast to poker, there were no hidden cards, no bluff. Yet because of the dice, it was also unlike chess: No genius could foresee twelve or thirty moves in advance.”

Yet Lethem’s novel is also a gambler’s anatomy in a second sense. The book’s main character is, indeed, a gambler: Alexander Bruno, a beautiful, California-born backgammon hustler who cultivates a “bogus mid-Atlantic accent” and a Bond-like suavity. And Bruno’s physical body, this particular gambler’s anatomy, drives the novel’s plot. On the first page, we learn that Bruno suffers from a “blot,” a dark spot partially obscuring his vision. The blot, Bruno finds out, is caused by a tumor residing between his brain casing and face. An experimental surgery removes the mass but leaves Bruno’s face permanently damaged — a difficult fate for someone whose “sole life accomplishment [is] his personality” and whose personality so largely depends upon his masculine beauty.


So we have deep anatomy, in the Burton mode, and shallow anatomy, in the Bond mode. Part of the novel’s argument, though, is that these hard distinctions don’t always neatly apply. At moments, Bruno believes the self to be pure surface, the act we perform so regularly that we can no longer distinguish it from the actor. At other times, the self is seen to be a private mystery, that which always remains concealed from others.


What makes Bruno Bruno? Is it the character he puts on when he’s snookering rich, amateurish backgammon players? Or is it his inner life, the self he doesn’t reveal to the world — his secret ability to read other minds (Bruno believes that he possesses telepathic abilities), his childhood memories of growing up in the “freakish demimonde” of Berkeley hippiedom? Bruno’s changed face brings these questions into relief; he’s a “cleaved self” in search of a “true self.”

The brain surgeon who operates on Bruno describes the location of his tumor as the “Bermuda Triangle of self’’: a no-man’s land between face and brain, surface and depth. That’s where Lethem locates the self, too.

Unfortunately, “A Gambler’s Anatomy’’ spends long stretches in other, more familiar locations. Bruno’s surgery is successful, but it’s also expensive. A long-forgotten childhood acquaintance, Keith Stolarsky, foots the bill and sets him up in an apartment in Berkeley — the city and scene Bruno has spent his life trying to escape. A retail and real estate fat cat, Stolarsky is a figure straight out of Pynchon in his more cartoonish style: slovenly, fast-talking, comically exuberant in his villainy. Bruno can’t figure out his angle: “Why had Stolarsky wanted to save Bruno? What was his life for?”


Stolarsky puts the indebted Bruno to work in Kropotkin’s Sliders, a burger-joint run by an anarchist named Garris Plybon but owned by Stolarsky. He also introduces Bruno to his sexy, flirtatious ex-Goth girlfriend, Tira Harpaz. (Note the Pynchonesque piling up of eccentric names). She competes for Bruno’s affections with a German sex worker who, at a private backgammon match, makes a dramatic entrance carrying a tray of shrimp sandwiches and wearing “a trim leather mask, with tight-stitched apertures for her eyes and nostrils, and an impassive zipper muting her lips.” Oh, and did I mention that, while working at Kropotkin’s, Bruno has to wear a sack cloth with a noose around the neck?

If you love Pynchon, then you’ll find all of this amusing. If you don’t, you won’t. When describing Bruno’s stylized personality, Lethem writes, “In the process of layering performance onto the outside of his container, Bruno could forget what the container disguised.” “A Gambler’s Anatomy’’ is at its best not when presenting us with a tiring and tiresome Pynchonesque performance but when thinking about the nature of performance itself — the points at which performance and container, mask and face, meet and merge.


By Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday, 289 pp., $27.95

Anthony Domestico, an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, has a book on poetry and theology forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.