There are probably scads and scads of books like 13. I’ve seen them in libraries and used book stores. They are books that take on one topic and mine it for endless anecdotes and historical curios, but they don’t claim that by looking through the prism of the topic at hand, a reader can discern the entire arc of human history. The books are about what they are about, and all you need to do as a reader is sit back and be entertained and informed. John McPhee, who is very good at this sort of thing, once wrote a book entirely about Oranges, for example. Nathaniel Lachenmeyer does this sort of thing well, too. His book is an impeccably researched look at an old superstition. With every turn of the page the reader is presented with another odd relic that Lachenmeyer has dug up for our perusal: the existence of popular superstition-defying “13 clubs” at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. And onward the book moves through Friday the 13th, the missing 13th floor, and all the rest. Taken as a whole, the book is a nifty piece of well-researched reportage bringing to light the many murky progenitors of this now commonplace superstition.
The Skating Rink is beginner’s Roberto Bolaño: there are no six-page sentences here, byzantine plots or jeremiads against Octavio Paz. It doesn’t even have a Facebook reading group. In the quiet Mediterranean town of “Z,” Enric, a a public servant, steals government funds to build a skating rink for a beautiful figure skater named Nuria. His scheme sets in motion a series of events that culminate in a woman being bludgeoned to death at the ice rink. Over the course of the novel, three alternating narrators, Enric included, reflect on the bizarre summer, obliterating in the meantime distinctions between myth and fact, guilt and innocence.
A murder mystery only in spirit, the novel is a double-cross of a thriller. Bolaño is more interested in pushing the boundaries of genre fiction than solving the crime. The character who’ll eventually be killed isn’t even introduced until halfway through the novel. Blink and you’ll miss the murderer’s confession. Instead, the cryptic first chapters hint, tease, and stoke the reader’s imagination with grisly possibilities.
“I’m fat, five foot eight, and Catalan… [my friends] will tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime,” Enric explains. Remo Morán, a Chilean expat and lapsed writer who slept with Nuria, remembers how a thick fog perfect for “Jack the Ripper” invaded the small town that summer. Gaspar Heredia, a Mexican poet Remo recruited to work in a local campground, recalls walking among “George Romero’s living dead.”
There’s so much pulpy foreboding before the actual murder at the ice rink that you can practically hear the Bernard Herrmann score; The Shining is even name-checked.
Bolaño’s plots are like Olafur Eliasson installations. The building blocks of the story may be exposed, but the scope of the structure takes a while to reveal itself. He is the master of the slow potboiler. His modus operandi here is to withhold information until the seams of the story cannot hold, creating confusion, anxiety, and the arrival of that moment in every one of his novels when it becomes inevitable to skip ahead.
That his novels are all more or less detective stories is in part generational. It’s easy to forget that in the 1970s, the authors that followed Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, “that duo of ancient machos,” as Bolaño derisively called them, turned to genre fiction – sci-fi, police thrillers – as an affront to the serious literature of the writers of the Latin American literary boom, and because only lurid fiction was suitable for portraying the despotic dictatorships and culture of violence of the decade.
But this novel is set in Costa Brava, and was written in 1993, and he won’t tackle those themes until at least Nazi Literature in the Americas. The Skating Rink is instead a daguerreotype of the meta-detective novels that will follow; Remo and Gaspar, two South American writers trying to solve a mystery, are the proto-Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.
In one of his last interviews he explained his predilection for genre in another way. “There’s no better literary reward than to have a murderer or a missing person to chase,” he said. Connecting “the four or five threads of the story becomes irresistible because as a reader I also get lost.” [Ed Note: Translated by the author, from Edmund Paz Soldán’s Roberto Bolaño: Literatura y Apocalipsis.]
When reading The Skating Rink, the idea is: relent to the intrigue. It’s no coincidence that he kicks off the book with an invitation to live “in delirium,” “rudderless.” It’s that appeal to get lost in the text that makes him so compulsively readable. Like in all his novels, the digressions accumulate, the back-stories grow, the avalanche of information casts its spell, and the prose slowly does its voodoo.
I think it is appropriate that a cartel of organizations, many of which you have heard of and one or two of which you may have even been a part of, self-sloganizes with the term ‘Madness.’ This cartel relies on the complicity of its member organizations to achieve a singular goal: making large amounts of money. Of course, as Pablo Escobar could have told you, trading in such a market, to the enrichment of a few, also involves the exploitation of many. However I speak not of Colombian cocaine, but of American college sports, headquartered far from Medellin, in Indianapolis. It is the National Collegiate Athletic Association, it is March, and business is very good.March Madness means that the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is upon us, along with its redheaded stepchild, institutionalized gambling. This is the real madness of the tournament: American businesses losing billions of man hours to the ubiquitous office pool (I should know, I ran the operation, back when I worked in an office), and dollars changing hands like so many dominoes and darts in the back rooms of bars. Devilish pursuits, and oh-so-American. As March Madness becomes more and more imprinted on the national calendar and the collective sports zeitgeist of millions of young men and women, most of whom can part with a ten or a twenty for the possibility of a big score, and the certainty of some televised excitement, as Vegas chews away on ever growing mouthfuls of greens, and as the cartel piles up larger and larger stacks of the same each year, the NCAA continues to be Teflon to the accusations that its practices are nothing short of exploitative toward the very individuals responsible for its undeniably superior product: the athletes. Don’t the athletes want, sometimes need, and even deserve a cut of all that action? Have they ever decided to rise up and take what is rightfully theirs?Yes, yes, yes, and, oh my, yes. And here we should get to the bookish side of things, because, if you’re like me, you may be spending some time in front of the TV in coming days. College basketball was plagued by a number of scandals in the 50s and early 60s that threatened to undermine, indeed, destroy the integrity of the game. In 1951, Kentucky and CCNY (then one of the best teams around) were the main schools implicated in a point-shaving operation that involved seven teams, dozens of players, and the orchestrated outcome of as many as 86 games. As a result, CCNY, the only team to have ever won both the NCAA and NIT tourneys in the same year, all but abandoned their program. But only a few short years later, on the upper west side of Manhattan, the father of modern basketball point shaving would rise from those ashes. His name was Jack Molinas, and he played for my own dear alma mater, Columbia.The Wizard Of Odds: How Jack Molinas Nearly Destroyed the Game of Basketball, by Charley Rosen, is a solid read, one of the best examinations of the machinations that went on in college gymnasiums all over the country in the years after the CCNY scandal (you didn’t think the bookies just packed up and left town, did you?). It is also a fascinating character study of a man who pulled more strings than a master tailor, while managing to cut himself loose of every lifeline to salvation. A lean, tall Greek kid from the Bronx, Molinas would bet on raindrops dripping down a window pane. He was said to have a genius level IQ, but it was his incredible talent on the basketball court, combined with his intellect, that enabled him to single-handedly control the outcomes of the games in which he played. Molinas would know the point spread before stepping on the court, and often would lead his team to the win, while making sure that they failed to cover the spread, according to the pervading winds as judged by the bookies who would then give him his cut. This is simple point shaving, but Molinas elevated it to an art form.There is plenty more to the story, such as his expulsion from the fledgling National Basketball Association, then desperate to free itself from the specter of gambling that was so plaguing the college game, after his rookie season, for gambling transgressions. After that, Molinas practiced law, while helping the mob orchestrate the next great college basketball betting scandal in 1961.It doesn’t take a genius IQ to recognize how the machinery of college athletics is vulnerable to sabotage in the form of gambling-fueled game orchestration. This is why the NCAA has such draconian rules involving student athletes and gambling. Would March Madness be March Madness if there was any question as to the competitive integrity of the contests? While this thought is frightening to some, it was the singular goal to which Jack Molinas devoted his life. Score one for the little guy.
The “Machine” in the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we’re going back eons. Kidder’s book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder’s subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West’s Eagle group – made up of young, brilliant engineers – comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you’re interested, an excerpt from the book is available.