The ballad of a small player

Lawrence Osborne, 1958-

Book - 2014

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London ; New York : Hogarth [2014]
First edition
Physical Description
257 pages ; 22 cm
Main Author
Lawrence Osborne, 1958- (-)
Review by New York Times Review

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 DaoMing'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. Baccarat, the game of instant death, dispenses millions or rains damnation in seconds. TOM SHONE'S latest book, "Scorsese: A Retrospective," will be published later this year.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [April 6, 2014] Review by Booklist Review

Having hastily decamped from the stuffy legal courtrooms of London to the smoky back-alley casinos of Macau, Lord Doyle tries to capitalize on the ill-gotten gains that forced his flight from his homeland by gaming the system at the island's glitzy baccarat tables. His fortunes rise and fall on a whim, the excesses of success mitigated by the depression of defeat. Always one to put on a good show, however, Doyle maintains his aura of invincibility until a local call girl offers him refuge when his money runs out. Robbing her to get enough of a stake on which to make a comeback, Doyle achieves a run of unprecedented good luck, but at what cost? With its ex-pat angst and debauched air of moral ambiguity set amid the sinister demimonde of the Far East's corrupt gambling dens, Osborne's (The Forgiven, 2012) darkly introspective study of decline and decay conjures apt comparisons to Paul Bowles, Graham Greene, and V. S. Naipaul.--Haggas, Carol Copyright 2014 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The latest from author and journalist Osborne (The Forgiven) is a searing portrait of addiction and despair set in the glittering world of Macau's casinos. "Lord Doyle," as he's known to the other gamblers, is an English lawyer who has embezzled from a client and fled to Asia. Doyle spends his days and nights playing baccarat, which he calls "a game of ecstasy and doom." At the tables he drinks fine wine, handles his cards wearing kid gloves, and slowly but surely loses. Doyle's descriptions of the tables, the players, and the game's siren allure are by turns touching, acid, and depressing. A fellow gamer has eyes that reveal "worlds of private pain." A particularly garish casino inspires Doyle to muse, "There is something in kitsch that reminds you there is more to being alive than being alive." But Doyle's jaundiced eye barely masks his monstrous compulsion; indeed, the novel's energetic portrait of the highs and lows of a gambler's fortunes are as good as anything in the literature of addiction. Just when it seems Doyle's luck may have at last run out, he's rescued by Dao-Ming, a beautiful prostitute, whose genuine concern for him seems to rouse Doyle from his dissipation and downward spiral. But the novel subverts an easy storybook ending and reveals something much bleaker. Osborne's intriguing Chinese milieu and exquisite prose mark this work as a standout. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

In his newest novel, Osborne (The Forgiven; The Naked Tourist) unpacks Nietzsche's concept of the eternal return through the melancholy figure of Lord Doyle. Hiding out in Hong Kong, finding solace in alcohol, and burning through his embezzled wealth at the baccarat table, the British lawyer is searching through his past and trying to make sense of his present. At the nadir of his gambling addiction, he meets a prostitute who changes his fortune forever. The intersection of statistical probabilities and superstition are invisible forces that provide depth and meaning to both characters as well as a dramatic context to explore fundamental questions of human value. -VERDICT Osborne's novel is seemingly a fictional composite of his own interests in drinking, traveling, and Southeast Asia. But the work is more than a personal diversion. It speaks to a larger, more disturbing universal truth embedded in the culture of gambling: one is always forced to act with or against the cards that are dealt. [See Prepub Alert 10/4/13.]-Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

The titular "small player" of Osborne's (The Forgiven, 2012, etc.) new novel gambles at the casinos in and around Macauand exclusively plays the high stakes game of baccarat. Doyle, our narrator and frequently known as "Lord Doyle"especially when he's coming off a winning streakhas attained his money dubiously; he's an English lawyer who embezzled a pile of cash from a vulnerable and trusting older woman. Doyle doesn't dwell on this part of his past, however, instead fixating on the smoky rooms and betting parlors of Macau, where he's surrounded by other equally obsessed gamblers. We meet an intimidating woman known as "Grandma," who every night drops thousands of Hong Kong dollars to get revenge on her philandering husband. Doyle's most important connection is to Dao-Ming, a call girl with a proverbial heart of gold, the only truly human relationship Doyle is able to establish. His preoccupationand at times his obsessionis the game of baccarat. We learn that each hand is inherently short, and the drama emerges from the enormous sums won and lost on the turn of a card. We witness Doyle's status change radically from loser to winner; since a "natural nine" is the best possible hand in baccarat, Doyle becomes something of a celebrity when he starts putting together hand after hand of these ninesand the proprietors of the casinos develop an understandable interest in this increase in his "luck." With his fortune mounting, Doyle plays one final handand decides to bet everything on the outcome. Osborne masterfully recreates the atmosphere of casinos as well as the psychology of baccarat playersand leaves readers eager to try their luck at the game.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.