Jonathan Lethem is a fascinating author. I’ve previously read two of his novels, Gun with Occasional Music and the Fortress of Solitude, and while I’ve quite enjoyed both of them, they’re rather different. One was a surreal noir set in a world where there were anthropomorphic animals and the other was a very realistic coming of age story. However, despite the realism of Fortress of Solitude Lethem managed to mix in a fascinating amount of weirdness with the inclusion of a ring that gave people superpowers. I don’t think I fully appreciated it at the time, but that odd little twist revealed an ability in Lethem to take a traditional story and add a bit of weirdness into to to set it apart from other tales. And the quality of those two books made me decide to check out more Lethem, which I’ve finally fulfilled, but with his latest work, a Gambler’s Anatomy. I honestly knew next to nothing about this novel when I picked it up, basically just that it was a Lethem novel, had a really intriguing cover, and was about a professional backgammon gambler. Oh man, another backgammon novel? We’re drowning in those! Snark aside, this novel sounded unlike anything I’d read before, and guaranteed to be a weird and fun tale. And while the novel ended up being absolutely nothing like what I anticipated, I still had quite a good time with it, and it ended up becoming something beautiful.
The novel follows Alexander Bruno, a professional gambler that specializes in backgammon. Oh, and he claims that he has telepathy. Anyway, Bruno is wandering Germany, trying to make a living and find marks. He’s also dealing with some sort of vision problems. He has a large blot in the middle of his vision, clouding everything in front of him, and he’s also having horrible headaches. While in the middle of a game of backgammon with a German millionaire disaster strikes. Bruno has a violent seizure and is brought to a hospital. It turns out he has a rare kind of tumor directly behind his eyes, which explains the blot, and is threatening to kill him. And, with no other alternatives, Bruno reaches out to an acquaintance from high school that he’s recently run into in Singapore, and asks for help. His acquaintance, Keith Stolarsky, is incredibly wealthy and owns a lot of real estate in Berkeley, California, which happens to be where a neurologist who specializes in these types of tumors lives. So Bruno resorts to the one thing he hates, relying on other people, and goes off to California and the life that he escapes to get healed. He deals with Stolarsky, a complete lout who everyone has to deal with because he’s rich, and gets his procedure, which leaves his face incredibly scarred. Bruno begins wearing a mask and struggling to find a way to live. He begins interacting with the oddball denizens of Berkeley, all of whom hate Stolarsky and the tacky empire that he’s built. However they do like Bruno, the odd and taciturn man who wears a mask and seems to have the same amount of disdain toward Stolarsky that they do. And things become much more difficult when Stolarsky starts to tire of Bruno’s freeloading, and begins playing a game of chess against Bruno, pitting characters against each other and trying to prove that he’s a bigger success than Bruno. Bruno slowly realizes that the only reason Stolarsky saved Bruno’s life was to create a worthy adversary, because he’s gotten so bored basically ruling Berkeley with an iron fist, and Bruno decides to play along and try to fight for the little people and find a new meaning in his life.
Like I said up top, this wasn’t how I thought this novel was going to end. From the beginning I was expecting a tale about a weird, suave gambler who travels around fleecing marks and dealing with some sort of brain tumor. But that quickly got brushed aside to enter the weird world of Berkeley. And it still somehow managed to be better than the goofy globe-trotting gambler story I assumed it was going to be. I have no idea why Lethem introduced that telepathy thing, because it barely came up and wasn’t even really substantiated, but taking that aside the novel was really terrific. We got to see Alexander Bruno, a man so used to being self-reliant and special brought down to his knees and made to beg for a living because of an illness. He has to completely reevaluate his life and his place in the world. Which is such an honest and brutal look at illness. We can be the strongest and most powerful people in the world, but be brought down by some small defect in our brains that we have no control of. It’s all luck.
A Gambler’s Anatomy was written by Jonathan Lethem, 2016.