If I did not add one more book to my list of books I want to borrow from the library, I think I could get through it in two years or so if I really try. Nonetheless, I am always eager to read a new novel by Jonathan Lethem and pushed A Gambler’s Anatomy to the top. This time he turns his considerable talents to exploring identity with a man who constructs one identity, loses it, and struggles between finding a new identity or going back to his old one.
Bruno Alexander is a handsome, suave, professional gambler who travels the world lightening the pockets of the very wealthy in high stakes games of backgammon. To Bruno, backgammon represents true candidness. No bluffing as in poker, no long-term strategies as in chess, backgammon is a game of the absolute now, “Each backgammon position was its own absolute and present circumstance, fated to be revised, impossible to falsify. Each roll of the dice created a new such circumstance. The game’s only true gambling device, the doubling cube, served an expression of pure will.” But we meet Bruno in Berlin as backgammon is failing him, or perhaps, he is failing backgammon. He is losing and in the course of a disastrous night of play, his nose starts bleeding and he faints, ending up in a hospital. He is soon diagnosed with a meningioma right behind his nose, causing a blot in his vision and destined to kill him because its placement is inoperable.
He learns of a neurosurgeon who dares to operate on difficult cases like his. A high school classmate named Stolarsky who made it rich gentrifying San Francisco offers to pay for everything, so he has a chance to live. The second part of the book is all about that surgery with enough detail I can imagine it being assigned reading in Neurosurgery 101.
The third part begins when Bruno is released from the hospital, his face covered in a compression mask, like a “Mexican wrestler” and dependent on the help of his benefactor Stolarsky. He has lost his suave, cosmopolitan identity and whatever his new identity will be, it is inchoate and elusive. His preoccupation will be figuring out who he is now. Ours will be figuring out why Stolarsky is so helpful.
Considering that he just happened to run into Stolarsky and his wife in Thailand shortly before his disastrous trip to Berlin, it’s hard to understand why Stolarsky is forking out a small fortune on Bruno’s behalf. It’s not as if Stolarsky is a nice guy. He’s one of the most hated men in the city. The people Bruno meets and befriends hate Stolarsky with all the passion of the proletariat rebelling against the bourgeoisie. A woman Bruno met in Berlin comes to visit. Why? I am not sure and I don’t think she is, either. It all gets a bit much, but it sure can be fun.
A Gambler’s Anatomy is an enjoyable book. It has many of the hallmarks of Lethem’s work, an obsession with pop culture and a kind of madcap exuberance. If you can read it without laughing, you’re an oddity. However, this time, his many gifts felt misspent on a story that is just not big enough for his talent.
- Jonathan Lethem web site
- NY Magazine interview with Jonathan Lethem
- A Gambler’s Anatomy at Knopf Doubleday