Apr 5, 2014

REVIEW: The Ballad of A Small Player

From my review for The New York Times:
'Damn. Another writer I have to care about. After a certain age it is as irksome to add to the list of writers one reads as it is to add to one’s circle of friends. For most of his career, Lawrence Osborne gave the impression of someone one could safely ignore. He wrote a novel in his youth that went the way of most first novels, before carving out a career as a travel writer and wine connoisseur, but then in his fifties something jolted him into writing another novel, The Forgiven, about Westerners partying on the edge of the Muslim desert, which turned out to be dark, brilliant and about as ignorable as a switchblade. Now he’s written another, and every other page there’s an image that catches the eye or sticks in the mind: “She handled them in the way that a buyer in a market will handle small fish before buying them.” That’s a woman betting on a hand of Baccarat. What’s great about those fish, apart from the way their size makes them so easy to flip, is the fear that they may go bad, just like a hand of cards. And how quickly they turn, too. You see? How can you hang into your indifference in the face of a simile like that? The setting is Macau, on the tip of mainland China closest to Hong Kong, where our narrator, a man known only to the locals as Lord Doyle, sits hunched at the baccarat tables of the local casinos, mustering a show of exceptional indifference as he burns his way through a stash of money in his suite. He is watched only by a call-girl in her late twenties named Dao-Ming, who observes, after sleeping with him, “you play as if you don’t care.” He doesn’t disagree. Lord Doyle, we quickly learn, is no such thing, but a lawyer from Sussex on the run after embezzling money from an elderly widow. Now he plays like a man in a freefall, waiting for the bottom to hit. “Everyone knows you’re not a real player until you secretly prefer losing” he observes. He’s certainly picked the right game: Baccarat, the game of instant death, dispensing millions, or raining damnation, in a matter of seconds, which may explain why it is the preferred game of James Bond. “It has danger, a steel edge to it,” says Doyle. For sheer clarity of exposition, there will probably never be any beating the famous opening scene of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, in which Bond relieves his opponent Le Chiffre of 70 million francs by a mixture of mathematical wizardry and good old-fashioned intuition. “You never play your hand, you play the man across from you,” says Bond. One shudders to think what Bond would make of Lord Doyle, a lost soul locked in mortal combat with himself, a pallid ghost ensnared in Macau’s casinos, with their neoclassical gold, potted palms and unmistakable smell of “humans concentrating on their bad fortune.”'

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