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'A Gambler's Anatomy' worth betting on

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Jonathan Lethem's latest novel complex and compelling

A globe-trotting backgammon hustler possessed of a gone-to-seed glamour and a rough-and-ready telepathy that comes and goes. Oh, and he also has a massive cranial tumor sitting just behind his face.

This is Alexander Bruno, the protagonist of Jonathan Lethem's 'A Gambler's Anatomy' (Doubleday, $27.95). It's a sprawling story, rendered in Lethem's typically mesmerizing prose, that explores the realities of the human condition by way of someone who has largely separated himself from his fellow man.

Bruno makes his living as one of the world's preeminent backgammon gamblers. He travels from major city to major city all over the world, playing games against obscenely wealthy men who are willing to spend thousands for the opportunity to take down one of the best. For a long time, those rich players largely fail to do so.

But something is wrong.

His game is not what it once was. A strange obstruction of his vision he calls it his 'blot' has resulted in real difficulty seeing the board. Nor is he able to harness the long-shelved telepathic powers so prominent in his youth. He has taken some serious hits so many that it is unclear if his longtime backer will remain in his corner.

In an effort to restore his bankroll as well as his dignity he agrees to a high-stakes game with a bombastic German real estate speculator. However, his condition leaves him in less than optimal playing shape. His collapse at the backgammon board is soon matched by an actual physical collapse a seizure that leaves him helpless and bloodied on the German's floor. At the hospital, he learns that the steadily-growing blot is a symptom of a massive, messy tumor spreading gelatinously through the inner workings of his face.

A chance encounter with an old acquaintance from his high school days back in Berkeley leads to an opportunity; a shopworn, Hendrix-loving hippie surgeon whose entire career has been building to this moment. Bruno hasn't got much hope, but what hope he has stems from this one-of-a-kind physician.

This means a return to his youthful stomping grounds, a trip back to the place he had walked away from years prior. His old friend is now a real-estate magnate, the sort of greed-driven boogeyman that is often anathema in such radical and liberal surroundings.

Bruno has little choice but to be swept up into a world that, while vaguely familiar, is nothing like the place he remembered. Nor does it resemble the sphere in which he has been operating. Life has changed for Alexander Bruno he's left making choices and picking sides in circumstances that he doesn't fully understand.

Lethem is one of those writers who rarely wastes a word. There's an easy complexity to the sentences he spins, creating oddly incongruent and effective descriptions and conversations that leap from the page; as per usual, the risk of literary contagion from Lethem's prose is exceedingly high. His words linger. Even as the specificity fades, the impression remains strong.

'A Gambler's Anatomy' is no different. Alexander Bruno is a classic Lethem outlier, one whose gifts, while undeniably impressive, have caused him to pull away into an insular isolation. When that bubble pops, when Bruno is forced to allow others accessthat's when the author cracks his knuckles and really gets down to business.

Exploring interpersonal dynamics is something that Lethem has always done masterfully. The relationships between Bruno and those around him friends, foes and those in between are rendered with powerful detail. As a character study, it's magnificent we get to venture into Alexander Bruno's head both figuratively and literally. We bear witness to the quirks and foibles of a man whose life may be ruined by the very same things that save it.

This book might not have the narrative oomph inherent to some of Lethem's other work; the story sometimes wanders and loses focus. That said, it's still very much a worthwhile read. There are some tonal shifts there an occasional noir vibe, some cold and clinical moments, a few dalliances into the speculative that might seem a bit odd to those unfamiliar with Lethem's oeuvre, but those (like me) already in the bag will have no problem embracing them.

'A Gambler's Anatomy' is a thoughtful and wonderfully-crafted work, one built on an authorial foundation of intelligence, curiosity and immense skill. It's the sort of reading experience that is very much worth a roll of the dice.

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:30


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