“There are two kinds of gambling,” explains the narrator of Dostoevski’s novella “The Gambler” — “One that is gentlemanly and another that is vulgar and mercenary.” The hero of “A Gambler’s Anatomy,” Jonathan Lethem’s 10th novel, appears to practice the gentlemanly variety. Wearing a tuxedo and armed with a backgammon set, Alexander Bruno travels the world, meeting wealthy “whales,” “suavely robbing them at clubs and in their private drawing rooms, then gliding like a knife through their four-star amenities.”
However, his luck has recently changed. “It was as though Bruno had rolled a die and revealed some previously unknown face: zero.”
First, a surprise encounter in Singapore with an incredulous school friend (“You hustle board games?”) triggers a cocaine-fueled bout in a palatial hotel which culminates in a strange blot on Bruno’s vision and a disastrous defeat. To recoup his losses, Bruno flies to Berlin to do battle with “a potentially historic whale,” but instead of walking away richer, he blacks out and wakes up hospitalized with a life-threatening tumor.
Lethem has a signature surreal streak that runs riot throughout many of his short stories. In contrast, as if unable to stretch a fantastical conceit over the course of a novel, his longer fiction is merely intercut with absurdist events and antic behavior. As with the magic ring in “The Fortress of Solitude” (2003), the zaniness in Lethem’s new novel is tangential rather than central, highlighting episodes, not imbuing the whole proceedings. A Hendrix-loving neurosurgeon, or “rock doc,” carves up Bruno’s face, puts it back together, then discusses sexual fetishes with his surgical team.
A post-op Bruno goes around in a mask and hood, finds new work (in costume) flipping burgers and claims to have telepathic powers.
Such outlandishness can be extremely funny. Lethem’s main section in Berkeley, the most successful part of the novel, is an effortless blend of comic hijinks and madcap tragedy. Bruno interacts with a rogues gallery of anarchists and hipsters, finds himself reunited with a German dominatrix, and learns the hard way that the friend who was bailing him out has a more sinister agenda: “It may appear he’s doing charity, but trust me, you’re human capital.”
Lethem ensures that the biggest laughs come from Bruno’s brash benefactor Keith Stolarsky and dazzles with a number of set pieces, including a game of strip backgammon between Bruno and Keith’s delectable girlfriend, Tira. As ever, Lethem’s narrative is propelled by sharp description and slick dialogue — although every time his English-speaking German character peppers her speech with a ja, nein or bitte she loses credibility.
“A Gambler’s Anatomy” may be lighter fare than its radical-political predecessor “Dissident Gardens” (2013), but it is by no means frothy. Lethem serves up a punchy, stylish, relentlessly entertaining novel which, during quieter moments, asks us to consider whether we make our own luck and how best to deal with what life throws at us.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
A Gambler's Anatomy
By: Jonathan Lethem.
Publisher: Doubleday, 289 pages, $27.95.