A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem
The author of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude returns with a devilishly entertaining novel about an international backgammon hustler who thinks he’s psychic. Too bad about the tumor in his face.
Handsome, impeccably tuxedoed Bruno Alexander travels the world winning large sums of money from amateur “whales” who think they can challenge his peerless acumen at backgammon. Fronted by his pasty, vampiric manager, Edgar Falk, Bruno arrives in Berlin after a troubling run of bad luck in Singapore. Perhaps it was the chance encounter with his crass childhood acquaintance Keith Stolarsky and his smoldering girlfriend Tira Harpaz. Or perhaps it was the emergence of a blot that distorts his vision so he has to look at the board sideways.
Things don’t go much better in Berlin. Bruno’s flirtation with Madchen, the striking blonde he meets on the ferry, is inconclusive; the game at the unsettling Herr Kohler’s mansion goes awry as his blot grows worse; he passes out and is sent to the local hospital, where he is given an extremely depressing diagnosis. Having run through Falk’s money, Bruno turns to Stolarsky, who, for reasons of his own, agrees to fly Bruno to Berkeley, and to pay for the experimental surgery that might save his life.
Berkeley, where Bruno discovered his psychic abilities, and to which he vowed never to return. Amidst the patchouli flashbacks and Anarchist gambits of the local scene, between Tira’s come-ons and Keith’s machinations, Bruno confronts two existential questions: Is the gambler being played by life? And what if you’re telepathic but it doesn’t do you any good?
Lethem / A GAMBLER’S ANATOMY
It was there when he woke up. Presumably also when he slept. The blot. Standing alone at the back of the sparsely populated ferry to Kladow, mercifully sheltered behind safety glass against the chill of the lake at evening, Alexander Bruno could no longer deny the blot that had swollen in his vision and was with him always, the vacancy now deforming his view of the receding shore. It forced him to peer around its edges for glimpses of the mansions and biergartens, the strip of sand at the century-old lido, the tarpaulined sailboats. He’d come to Berlin, half the circumference of the world, two weeks ago, whether to elude his fate or to embrace it he couldn’t know.
He’d been biding his time in Charlottenburg, breakfasting at the quiet cafés, watching the days grow steadily longer, overhearing more spoken English than he’d have preferred, running through his last funds. His tuxedo had remained in its hanging bag, his backgammon case latched. All the while the blot had been with him, unacknowledged. Bruno its carrier, its host. He’d passed through customs with the innocence of the accidental smuggler: Nothing to declare. It was only after having at last called the number provided him by Edgar Falk and consenting to visit the rich man’s house in Kladow, only upon his waking, this very day on which he’d dusted off tuxedo and backgammon case, that the blot had insisted he grant its existence. An old friend he’d never met but recognized nevertheless.
Why get too fancy about it? He might be dying.
Under the circumstances of Bruno’s dread, the slide of the S-Bahn through the endless roster of stations from Westend to Wannsee had seemed as long as his voyage from Singapore to Berlin. The German city, with its graffiti and construction sites, its desultory strips of parkland and naked pink water pipes, had its own sprawl and circumference. Berlin wended through time. On the S-Bahn toward Wannsee the tall girls in black leggings with bicycles and earbuds, so prevalent in Charlottenburg and Mitte, had thinned out, replaced by dour Prussian businessmen and staring grandmother types, slouching home with briefcases and shopping bags. By the time of the ferry there was little to defeat the irresistible illusion that the city was newly vanquished and carved into sectors, that the prevailing silence and gloom derived from remorse and privations not seventy years past but fresh as smoldering rubble.
When Bruno had called to ask his host for directions to Kladow, the rich man told him that the ferry across the lake at evening was an experience he shouldn’t miss. Bruno, the German had said, should keep his eye out on the right for the famous Strandbad Wannsee, Berlin’s traditional resort beach, and, on the left, for the Wannsee-Konferenz villa. The site of the Final Solution’s planning, though Bruno had needed this legacy explained by his hotel’s concierge. Of course, scanning for it now, Bruno had no way of distinguishing the site from other mansions arrayed on the western shore, each of which heaved into the void at the center of his sight.
For how long had Bruno considered the blot nothing but a retinal floater grown mad or the looming ghost of his inattention? Only a fool wouldn’t connect it to the perennial headache that had caused him, as he’d walked from the Wannsee S-Bahnhof through the steep park leading to the boarding dock, to shuffle his fingers into his tuxedo jacket’s interior pocket in search of his packet of paracetamol, that incomparable British aspirin on which he’d grown dependent. Then to gulp down two pills, with only the shimmering lake before him for water. He’d accept the verdict of fool if it meant the paracetamol repaired his sight. Made a full cake of that which was presently a doughnut: the world. He raised his hand. The blot obscured his palm as it had the shore. Bruno noticed he’d lost a cuff link.
“Excuse me,” he said. He said it to a tall girl in black tights, one of those who’d journeyed in his car of the S-Bahn, all the way from the fashionable Mitte, to board the ferry. She’d maneuvered her bicycle into the ferry’s rack before joining him at the back windows. Bruno spoke to excuse crouching at her knees to feel on the floor, on the chance that the cuff link had only tumbled down at his feet. A hopeless impulse, like the drunkard in the joke who, wandering at night on a side street, and discovering he has lost his key, searches not in the place he believes it was lost but instead beneath a lamppost, simply because the light is better there.
The joke came to mind because the girl crouched to help, without knowing what she was looking for. In the joke, the drunk was aided by a policeman, who searches for a while beneath the streetlamp too. Now, as she bent to join him, Bruno saw that girl wasn’t actually the right word. Her lined face was both severe and attractive. So many women in Berlin, athletically slim, dressed in a universal costume and couldn’t be judged for age by their outlines.
“No . . . no . . .” The Berliners all spoke English, and even when they didn’t, the meanings bled through. In Singapore the alien tongues of Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil had left him happily sealed in his cone of incomprehension. Did she guess that the problem was with his eyes because he groped like a blind man?
“Kuffenlinksen . . .” he bluffed, pinching his loose sleeve. He doubted it was a word in any language. Additionally I am probably also soon losing my life, he added in pidgin telepathy, just to see if she was listening.
She showed no sign of having read his thoughts. He was relieved. Alexander Bruno had forsaken thought transference years ago, at the start of puberty. Yet he remained vigilant.
“English?” she asked.
Bruno enjoyed being mistaken for British. With his height and high cheekbones, he’d been told he resembled Roger Moore, or the bass player from Duran Duran. More likely, however, she only meant the English language.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve dropped a piece of jewelry. I’m sorry, I don’t know the word in German. Man jewelry.” He displayed his cuff, which was slightly foxed, scorched by hotel-room ironings. Let her see it. Bruno was aware that his appeal was that of a ruined glamour. His neck and jaw, considered in the mirror lately, were those of the father he’d never known. The flesh only tightened over Bruno’s chin in the old familiar way if he thrust his jaw forward and tilted his head back slightly, a pose he’d recognized as definitive of middle-aged vanity. He caught himself at it frequently.
Now he looked not into the mirror but into the face of the would-be rescuer of his nonexistent contact lens. White hair interspersed with the blond. Enticing lips framed by deep lines—to Bruno, expressive, though they must have bothered her. Two humans beyond their prime, but hanging in. He had to deflect his glance in order to see her at all, likely making him appear more bashful than he felt. “Never mind,” he told her. “I’m sure I lost it on the train.”
Flirtation, so effortlessly accomplished. Mention of the train had done it. Train unspecified; they both knew which. They’d ridden together and now shared the ferry, and though a thousand identical to her might have strolled past his Charlottenburg café window in two weeks, the shared destination worked its paltry magic. And both tall. This little was enough to excuse lust as destiny.
Bruno had imagined a day when he’d outgrow distractibility. Instead, approaching fifty, the window of his interest had widened. Women once invisible to his younger self were now etched in flame in his imagination. This wasn’t erotic propriety. Bruno was still capable of desiring the younger women who no longer—mostly—returned his glances. But those his own age, their continuing fitness for the animal game newly visible to him, these he found more arresting, for their air of either desperation or total denial. Would he eventually crave the grandmothers too? Perhaps by that time the blot in his sight would have expanded to a general blindness, and so have freed him.
They stood. “I’m Alexander,” he said, and offered his hand. She took it.
The question was in what language they’d extend their special destiny. English, or . . . ? Not German, since Bruno had none. English or the language of no language, which he preferred. He began slowly and deliberately, but with care not to suggest idiocy on either of their parts. “I have an appointment in Kladow. It is at a private home. I am expected alone, but it would surely delight my host if I arrived with you as a guest.”
“I’m sorry?” She smiled. “You would like—?”
“I’m hoping you’ll join me, Madchen.”
“To a dinner, ja? Sorry for my not-good English.”
“I should be the one to apologize. I’m the visitor in your country. It’s not a dinner exactly. An . . . appointment.” He raised his backgammon case slightly. If she took it for a briefcase, she wasn’t precisely wrong. The tools of his trade. “But there’s sure to be something to eat, if you’re hungry. Or we can go out after.”
I will never lie to you, he promised silently, again just in case she could hear. Bruno had only encountered a small scattering of those in whom he observed the gift of telepathy he himself had renounced. But you never knew.
“It is very nice, what you ask, but I think I can’t.”
“You’d be completely welcome.”
“If it is your work?”
“I’m a gambler,” he said. “You would be my good-luck charm.” Steadiness and poise, these were Bruno’s old methods. He wasn’t going to let the blot make him squirrelly.
She didn’t speak but smiled again, confused.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
They should have had a bar on this ferry, and an ocean for the ferry to cross. Instead the voyage was concluding. The boat had curled around a small island, into the landing at Kladow. The passengers bunched at the doors.
“Or, afterward,” he conceded. “I could call you when I’m finished.” He gestured at the twilit town beyond the ferry dock. “Have you a favorite place for a late drink?”
“In Kladow?” Madchen seemed to find this funny. She raised her bicycle’s front wheel to free it from the rack.
He drew his phone from his tux’s interior breast pocket. “Will you give me your number?”
She raised her eyebrows, glanced to one side. Then took his phone from him and, scowling intently, keyed a string of numbers into the device and returned it to him. The ferry emptied quickly. They brought up the rear, shuffling out along the short pier where others now queued for the return crossing. Under the Kladow docks, a family of swans bobbed together. Farther from the boats, he saw a diving cormorant. The bird called Bruno to some memory he couldn’t quite retrieve . . .
He scanned the near shore for the car the rich man had promised to send. The view confirmed the ferry’s power as a time machine, one which had transported them from the fashionable Mitte, the urbane international Berlin of present reputation. Alt-Kladow stood clustered uphill, a sleepy nineteenth-century village. Perhaps it was here German life truly resided, fires banked against history. Bruno might understand Madchen’s amusement at the suggestion of a late drink now. Though the shorefront was strewn with cozy biergartens, he’d be surprised if they remained open much past sundown on a Wednesday. The crowd from the ferry lowered their heads and trudged past the biergartens’ wooden-bower entrances, hell-bent for domestic finish lines.
“Do you live here?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I come to do . . . kindersitting. For my sister’s girl.”
They crossed the street, Madchen wheeling her bicycle by her side. They passed a workman who knelt in a scattering of loose squarish stones, which he pounded with a large block hammer into the familiar grid pattern that made up Berlin’s sidewalks. Bruno had never seen the stones dislodged from the ground until now. They seemed a reminder to him of his trade, his purpose here. Berlin was paved with unnumbered dice, smashed flush to the ground with wooden mallets.
As the few vehicles meeting the ferry departed, and the crowd of walkers filtered up the hill, Bruno spotted the car he’d expected, the car the rich man had sent for him. A Mercedes-Benz, two decades old but impeccable. Another output of the time machine. The driver, crew cut and thick of neck, examined Bruno, who would have fit the description he’d provided the rich man, except for the presence of his companion. Bruno held up one finger, and the driver nodded and rolled up his window. Madchen followed his glance.
“Madchen—” He took the tip of her chin gently between his thumb and forefinger, as if adjusting a framed picture slightly skewed on a wall. The nearer he brought her face to his, the less the blot mattered. As if he’d invited her in, behind its curtain. “One kiss, for luck.”
Her eyes closed as he leaned in and brushed her lips with his. Bruno felt a surprising numbness in his lips. He hadn’t noticed feeling cold. You have been kissed, Madchen, by a vision in a tuxedo. Albeit one not so well preserved as the car that had come to collect him.
“I’ll call when I’m done.” He thought of his earlier promise. One enforced the other.
Madchen drew back and shed a last curious smile, then slid onto her bicycle and was gone, into the center of his blot and up the hill. By the time Bruno entered the backseat of the waiting car, she wasn’t to be seen. He glanced once more shoreward, at the jostling swans, the bobbing fearless cormorant, then nodded to the driver. The Benz crawled up the same road she’d taken, the only route into Alt-Kladow.