Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. It’s hard to believe we’ve been publishing Frank Bascombe for years now, but we have, and in 2007, I think we’ll actually be expanding AICN Books a bit, inviting in some new reviewers who will focus on specific genres. For now, though, let’s close out 2006 with one last trip to the bookshelves with Frank. Take it away, man:
It’s been an exciting year in the literary world, and I’ve got a few good books to tell you about that start off 2007. There’s a stack of galleys on my desk that I’m dying to get to, from Jim Crace, AM Homes, and of course Chuck Palahniuk, to name a few. All that and more are in the works for the coming months so sit tight.
The Art of Losing by Keith Dixon
St. Martins PressI stumbled upon Keith Dixon’s first book Ghostfires almost by accident. I was dusting the shelves of a local mega-store during my internment in book retail and the subtle but blistering cover jumped out at me. From there I was bowled over at the novel’s brilliance and waited patiently for the next book. It didn’t take long; Mr. Dixon’s output is steady and consistent, which is a good omen for things to come as he might start to write a book every year or so which would be fine with me. Publishers Weekly, despite its claims of being relevant and of the moment, is really nothing more than a shill for the book world , and offers thoughtless McNugget-sized reviews which depict a magazine woefully out of touch and playing it safe. Okay, rant aside, they swiftly kicked The Art of Losing in the stomach, which, for a magazine like that to do reminds me just how subjective reviews can be, or in this case painfully un-objective. The Art of Losing confirms that Keith Dixon is a force to be reckoned with, a writer of substance and with this new novel, someone to watch. It’s a story about gambling, the morality in life and the fine line we all walk on when it comes to doing what we need to do and what we have to do to survive. Our hero, or as much as he can be called a ‘hero’, is Mike Jacobs, a documentary filmmaker who has a shady friend named Sebby Laslo. From the get go we know that helping Sebby will eventually drag Mike down into the mud and render his life completely unusable. Woven between episodes of degenerate behavior, mostly emanating from violent bookmakers and the horse track are scenes of complete brilliance, not unlike Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Dixon prepares and serves New York City to us without the concrete immediacy found in so many other stories, but through the prism of a shared experience, a thoughtful stare or even the poetry of thoughts not words. Mike remembers his past, the glory days of making documentaries, and from those memories pops a beautiful muse that he allows his circumstances to sully, regrettably. Mike makes a bad bet on a fixed horserace and the wheels come off his life rather quickly. I was impressed that Dixon didn’t surrender the story to cliché or melodrama, but to the reality of saving your own skin and what it sometimes takes to do just that. Sebby ruins Mike, his life and his career, but as Dixon so aptly puts it: “Nobody can make trouble like a friend.” I’ve said enough…this book is worth every minute you spend reading it.
Sweet: An Eight-ball Odyssey by Heather Byer
RiverheadI was thrilled to find out that Riverhead was publishing this book because it’s really a first for two things. One; I’ve never read a book about the game of pool billiards written by a woman. Second; she gets her training at a pool hall in Manhattan where I spent the better part of the 1990’s playing pool, Chelsea Billiards. I’ve never read a book that even spends even a little time there. ‘Playing off the Rail’ is one, but it was about hustling all over the country and it stopped into Chelsea only a few times. Ms. Byer bumps into the game by accident and falls in love with the geometry and challenge immediately. She joins “pool school” run out of Chelsea Billiards for beginners. I remember when the pool school started. My fellow pool playing buddies and I used to watch them congregate at Chelsea every Saturday morning and Monday nights, (I’ll admit that we looked down on pool school. It seemed like a scam. It’s not, but we were busy fighting over the same twenty dollars we were betting on in our own pool games) and it’s very possible that I met Heather Byer right before I left the city in ’99. She takes us from the first success with one of the coaches named Mark, a guy that is a great instructor, to her first trip into the 8-Ball League that she joins, whose members met at Chelsea every week, usually during pool school to go as a unit to the different bars in Manhattan where the league held its matches. This league is run throughout the country and there are levels that you can reach as a team and end up in a competition that can actually win prize money for the participants, and that’s great, but it’s not what the book is about. Byer tries to boil down the physical act of winning, losing, and what it’s like to beat a stranger at a game of pool. This is not a book about a woman falling prey to the lure of gambling on pool. But I will say this, if she did gamble on pool she’d have a very good idea on what it’s like to play a game where you directly have an effect on the outcome, and can control what you win and lose, monetarily. Paul Newman said it best, “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned” and gambling on a pool game, win or lose, is a rush unlike any other. I wish she’d gotten into that, but she stayed away and dove directly into the dynamics of being a part of a league and the chemistry of winning and losing a game of pool and becoming something – a good pool player. She introduces us to several men who are part of her eight ball pool league and they’re a variety of rich, poor, nearly homeless, nasty, rude, sexist, bad at pool and good at something else, or horrible at everything else and a wizard with the balls and stick. She discusses how their relationships formed, out of the love of the game, and sometimes eventually ended up with them under the sheets. It seems as though Byer wanted some socialization, companionship, and in this game she takes up first as a hobby and then more as a strong interest she finds both, and it’s refreshing to see a female protagonist in literature beam with joy via the game of pool. It’s like this is chick lit for guys. There’s a great moment where she learns from another woman at a bar during practice before a league game how to break by thrusting her hips as she takes the shot. We experience this for the first time while we read it, as if we’re standing right beside the table with the author. There’s a pleasant voyeuristic quality to this story. Byer writes with an uncanny narrative style that’s both honest and wide-eyed at the world of pool billiards she never knew existed. Whether it’s the smoky environs or the obsessive nature of pool players with an itch they can’t scratch when it comes to being good at the game all the time, these details glimmer. The pages fly by as we move from euphoria she feels at winning her first match to not being about to “play a radio” as we used to say in the pool room when we watched someone who sucked, and her game falls to pieces. Throughout parts of this book, Byer talks about women in the male-dominated game of pool, and she does it perfectly, really. This is a book so fresh and original that I’m so pleased to report that it’s as riveting a read as you’re likely to find. Although some of the idols she gravitates towards need more background, particularly Jeanette Lee (an example along with Fran Crimi who have “made it” in the game) the “black widow” as she’s called in the pool billiards world; who got that name because of her long flowing black hair and sleek figure, plus she could beat anyone at a game of pool. She’s described as “intense, attractive, focused, and also shrewd.” The thing is, she is all of those things but she was trained by two men. One was a legend of the New York City pool scene, straight pool master George Mikula, who trained the actors for the Color of Money, and had his picture hanging in Chelsea Billiards over a table in the back. The other guy is Paul Schneider who owns a sign company off Sixth Avenue in the twenties. Between these two men Jeanette Lee learned everything there was to learn about the game (she may not admit that). She’s good, but these guys who taught her the game define the word talent. I once saw her walk into Chelsea offer some guy who was hanging around the poolroom the eight ball in a game of nine-ball and lose, and then lose again. She was good back then, and she’s unreal now, but she got beat by a guy who really was an unknown, and even an experienced pool player wouldn’t play a stranger offering up that kind of spot. These guys also taught George “Ginky” San Souci, (not mentioned in the book), who is probably one of the best players to come out of Chelsea Billiards over the last fifteen years – an incredible gambler and hustler, but generally rough around the edges, socially. A pure prodigy and a talent like nothing I’ve ever seen, he could play pool better than anyone I’ve ever watched on television and that includes Reyes and Archer. Chelsea Billiards is a place of legends, and became the premier pool room for gambling in the mid-nineties… the place was “it”. It’s all but gone now, it’s been sold to new owners (around ’00) and it’s more of a club, with outrageous fees for table time. Julian’s on 14th street was also great, and once it was torn down to make way for NYU dorms, guys like five dollar Charlie migrated to Chelsea and potpourri of characters that could only be explained in another book, perhaps a sequel to this. In the final sixty pages, Byer releases what can only be described as the “oh shit” moment in a pool players education. A sly older man, repairer of pool tables, drunk and regular barnacle on the pool scene offers to give her lessons. The fact that she’s been playing in a bar league for almost two years and still plays horribly is shameful to the general structure of bar leagues, but she gets some lessons from someone who can play and presto she gets better. She learns how to bank balls using the diamond system and it’s a great moment to watch, umm…I mean read. She starts watching other good players and even plays people better than herself, which are the only two ways you can improve as a pool player. ‘Sweet: An Eight-ball Odyssey’ is a wonderful story about a woman learning a complicated game dominated by men, and in a lot of ways is a very touching coming of age story. Drop me a line here if you have a book I should read or if you just want to say happy holidays!