by Tom Shone)
‘The Ballad of a Small Player,’ by Lawrence Osborne
Damn. Another writer I have to care about. After a certain age, it’s 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 being someone I 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 50s something jolted him into writing another novel, “The Forgiven,” about Westerners partying on the edge of the North African desert, which turned out to be dark, brilliant and about as ignorable as a switchblade.
Now he’s written a third novel, and on 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 on to your indifference in the face of a simile like that?
The setting is Macau, on the tip of mainland China west of Hong Kong, where our narrator, a man known to the locals as Lord Doyle, sits hunched at the tables of the casinos, mustering a show of exceptional nonchalance as he burns his way through a stash of money. He is watched only by a call girl in her late 20s named Dao-Ming, who observes, after sleeping with him, that he plays as if he doesn’t care. He doesn’t disagree. Lord Doyle, we quickly learn, is no such thing. He’s a lawyer from Sussex on the run after embezzling money from an elderly widow. Now he plays like a man in free-fall, waiting for the bottom to hit. “Everyone knows you are not a real player,” he observes, “until you secretly prefer losing.”
He’s certainly picked the right game. Baccarat, the game of instant death, dispenses millions or rains 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,” Doyle says. For sheer clarity of exposition, there will probably never be any beating the opening scene of Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale,” in which Bond relieves his opponent Le Chiffre of 80 million francs by deploying a mixture of mathematical wizardry and good old-fashioned intuition. “You never play your hand, you play the man across from you,” Bond explains in the movie adaptation. One shudders to think what Bond would make of Lord Doyle, a lost soul locked in mortal combat with himself, a ghost ensnared in Macau’s casinos, with their neoclassical gold, potted palms and unmistakable smell of “humans concentrating on their bad luck.”
Osborne gives us a quick run-down of the rules, but they fly past like a snatch of Swahili. He’s much less interested in the game than the psychology of his player, from the “sweet vertigo” that precedes a huge bet, to the “betting power, though of the negative kind” — belligerent, aggressive — that precedes a loss, to the “surge of animal arrogance” that follows a sudden win, success being “like a crime scene, something that enchants the worst side of the mind.” All are negotiated in the course of Osborne’s slim but insistent narrative. After taking a beating from a magnetic crone known only as “Grandma,” who leaves Doyle unable to pay for even his breakfast — should he feign a heart attack? flee? — he finds refuge in the arms of his call girl, who feeds him bamboo clams, red opium and oolong tea, making love to him “without fluidity or affection or drama” beneath a drizzle of constant rain.
While the skeptical reader gently rolls her eyes at this vision of molten compassion, an alternative source for Dao-Ming’s ethereality (“It was as if everything around her were invisible and had no weight”) suggests itself as the entire novel takes on something of a spectral shimmer. For the Chinese, numerology abuts metaphysics, and coincidences are a crack into the divine. Trapped in the casino with all the other hungry ghosts, Doyle begins to confront the possibility that he is more than just metaphorically haunted. “I was stepping into an unknown land inhabited by centaurs, hunchbacks and drooling elves,” he writes as once more he lays down his hand on the baize.
“The Ballad of a Small Player” is a slighter work than “The Forgiven,” a worldly, insinuating novel about a couple on their way to a weekend-long party, thrown by rich friends in the Moroccan desert, whose car runs over a local Muslim boy — a single act from which Osborne unloosed a chain of cultural misunderstandings that rather suggested “The Sheltering Sky” as rewritten by the somewhat more swinish breed of Englishman — one of those writers, like Evelyn Waugh, who believe the best response to all the wickedness they see in the world is to laugh at it.
“The Ballad of a Small Player” forgoes Osborne’s gifts of social satire but retains his sense of dread and gift for gimlet-eyed metaphor: that old crone’s face “like an overripe peach, furred and uneven”; a gambler on his way to the table “like a raccoon on its way to a Dumpster”; a casino interior like “some Hans Christian Andersen fairy palace imagined by a small child with a high fever.” That’s not a bad description of the book itself, a vivid and feverish portrait of a soul in self-inflicted purgatorio.
THE BALLAD OF A SMALL PLAYER
By Lawrence Osborne
257 pp. Hogarth. $25.
*Blogger's note: I included this because I read a book by Lawrence Osbourne before and it was really good. It was called The Wet and The Dry. I loved his writing style and would definitely pick up that book and this one.