A GAMBLER'S ANATOMY

by Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday

978-0-385-53990-6

290pp/$27.95/October 2016

A Gambler's Anatomy
Cover by gray318

Reviewed by Steven H Silver


Jonathan Lethemís latest novel, A Gamblerís Anatomy, follows the tribulations of Alexander Bruno, the latest in a string of outsiders who inhabit Lethemís work. Bruno may, however, be Lethemís protagonist with the least amount of agency in any of Lethemís novels, a fact commented on by Brunoís friend and patron, Keith Stolarsky.

Bruno travels the world playing high stakes games of backgammon against wealthy gamblers who don't play the game as well as they think they do. Rather than set up these matches himself, Bruno is associated with Edgar Falk, who also bankrolls Bruno. Following a poor outing in Singapore, during which Bruno encountered a childhood acquaintance, Stolarsky, and his girlfriend, Tira Harpaz, Bruno finds himself sent by Falk to Berlin to play a match against Wolf-Dirk Kohler. Kohler uses a variety of techniques to throw Bruno off his game, including a half-naked dominatrix, but what really appears to be Bruno's downfall as he loses to Kohler, is a strange blot in his vision which has been getting worse. The match ends with Bruno being taken off to a hospital.

Bruno is diagnosed with a rare and deadly tumor that his German doctors feel is inoperable, however a surgeon in San Francisco believes there is something he can do about it. Although Bruno has no desire to return to the Bay Area where he grew up, Stolarsky is willing to pony up the money to make the trip possible. Combined with Stolarsky's money and Dr. Noah Behringer's willingness to forego as much of his billing as possible, Bruno is set to have the tumor, which causes the blot, to be removed.

Bruno is not a particularly likeable character. He drifts through life and shows little desire to connect with any of the people helping him, or even those co-existing with him. Like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, Bruno has "always depended upon the kindness of strangers," not only Falk, Stolarsky, Harpaz, and Behringer, but also the mysterious blonde he meets on the ferry to his match with Kohler, the burger-flipper at a slider restaurant in Berkeley, and the manager of one of Stolarsky's stores. He rarely shows any appreciation for what any of them have done for him.

One thing that does set Bruno apart from the other characters is his confidence that he is able to read other people's minds, a trait he discovered he had as a child and managed to tamp down. When his ability appears to return with the removal of the blot, he worries about his ability to shut off the power. His discussion of it with a skeptical Dr. Behringer is one of the few places Bruno may actually demonstrate his power, as he can describe to Behringer the activities of the operating room when Bruno was under anesthesia. Others are similarly skeptical of Bruno's claims, most notably Stolarsky, who Bruno is warned is using him for his own purposes which Bruno is never quite able to ascertain.

Bruno is clearly enamored of his ability at the backgammon board, however in the various games that Lethem describes, he is never able to fully live up to his reputation. Similarly, he has an image of himself in the world, whether it is based on his belief in his ESP or as someone moving around in a world of tuxedos and luxury goods which doesn't quite match his depiction in hoodies and The Big Lebowski t-shirts. Bruno may be the hero of his own story and Lethem's novel, but Lethem clearly indicates that he isn't the hero of anyone else's story.

Although backgammon rarely features at the forefront of the novel, it is always present, whether in the board the Bruno generally carries with him, the games he places, the division of the book into chapter based on the doubling cube, or the endpapers of the book which replicate the board. Bruno's advances and setbacks can be seen as playing out a game, either advancing or being sent to the bar by an unknown opponent until in the end Bruno must either win or lose, as well as learn who his actual antagonist is.


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