What is a face? Is it a mass behind which we create an identity? Or is it our actual identity? What happens when the face is radically changed?
In “A Gambler’s Anatomy”, Alexander Bruno is a professional backgammon player, telepathic, debonair and mysterious, expertly relieving the wealthy and egotistical- frequently one and the same-of their money. “Relieving such men of their pretensions: Those were Bruno’s services.” We first meet him in Berlin, where he has fled from Singapore in an effort to escape financial and personal disaster, including an escape from his “sponsor”, Edgar Falk. “Falk conducted an invisible orchestra of graft; his mantra was ‘price of doing business.’…Falk stayed behind to settle affairs and collect debts. Falk always collected debts.”
Bruno is suffering a blot in his visual range which he considers part of his persona until he collapses, finds himself in a Berlin hospital and discovers he has a tumor. The tumor is caught between the casing of his brain and his face and is generally inoperable. He is told that the only physician who would be willing to attempt to remove his tumor is in San Francisco, Bruno’s hometown. Penniless at this point, his now wealthy high school friend, Keith Stolarsky, arranges to fly him home and provide temporarily for his medical and living needs.
Dr. Behringer is an eccentric neurosurgeon who specializes in the removal of tumors that other physicians will not consider. Behringer is bearded, unorthodox and listens to Jimi Hendrix during his surgeries, engaging in sex talk with his staff while winding down his intricate surgeries. His plan for Bruno is to remove his handsome face, extricate the tumor and put his face back. The surgery is ultimately a success.
While Bruno travels back to San Francisco and during his recovery from the surgery, he flashes back to his childhood in California and to his days in Singapore. His mother was effectively homeless and Bruno practically raised himself. He recalled a month spent in the burn unit of a hospital when he was 11 and his jobs in restaurants beginning in seventh grade. Ultimately Bruno finds himself in London and then Singapore–a professional gambler. His gambling life in Singapore was a rousing success until it wasn’t!
His relationship with Keith Stolarsky and his time back in San Francisco is challenging. Stolarsky is a narcissistic, ego maniacal real estate magnate, hated by all who come in contact with him. Stolarsky owns almost all of Telegraph Avenue, including Zodiac Media, Zombie Burger and the Jack London apartments, where Bruno is temporarily housed. Bruno is completely dependent on him for food, clothing, medical bills and everything else. In fact, Bruno’s entire wardrobe, consisting of tee shirts with the word Abide (The Big Lebowski) and sweat pants are courtesy of the Zodiac. Stolarsky’s motives for helping Bruno are less than clear. Their relationship is very like a complex game of chess, with Bruno always one move behind. Ultimately Bruno’s life on Telegraph Avenue comes to an end and he finds himself back in Singapore with Falk, doing what he does best and reflecting on life, concluding the “We’re all Unknown Tragics on this bus”.
The story is typical Lethem- cynical and irreverent, focused on the off beat, counter cultural community and its disaffected alienated sociopaths, and filled with various literary and media references, strange and sometimes incoherent sentences, yet enjoyable all the same. Lethem still hasn’t captured the magic of “Motherless Brooklyn”, but “A Gambler’s Anatomy” is one of his better novels since that 1999 gem. The novel will be released in October and you can reserve it now at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/mobile/record/C__Rb11222979__SA%20gamblers%20anatomy__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=mobile