When it comes to baseball, the mind is unreliable and selective in what it remembers. Games and seasons blend into to one another and most second basemen or relief pitchers fade from view forever soon after they leave the diamond for good. Old teams and players live on only as lines of statistics in massive baseball encyclopedias or deep historical databases. Lost, too, are the millions of moments that make up every game. But Roger Angell has been quite good, over the years, at capturing those moments and preserving them as though in amber. And so, in reading his collection of baseball pieces that span more than forty years, one feels a bit like the lucky archeologist who has stumbled upon magnificent specimens so exquisitely preserved as to seem positively lifelike. Angell writes with almost scientific precision: “With the strange insect gaze of his shining eyeglasses, with his ominous Boche-like helmet pulled low… Reggie Jackson makes a frightening figure at bat.” Angell is not just an observer; he is also the ultimate fan, rooting for childhood favorites or for a team whose story has caught his fancy that particular year. Game Time is laid out like the baseball year, with pieces about the languor and anticipation of spring training in the beginning and closing with multi-faceted recollections of several past World Series. The many pieces taken together are like one long summer spanning forty years, a summer when you went to the ballpark frequently but listened to most of the games on the radio on the back porch at dusk.
The poker craze may have peaked, but it was a big thing there for a bit. About five years ago, ESPN’s prominent televising of the World Series of Poker and the emergence and proliferation of online poker sites where amateur card sharps could test their skills against other players around the globe fueled an explosion of interest in what was once a back-room pastime. To a lesser extent, a pair of books fanned the flames as well: James McManus’ Positively Fifth Street, a journalist and amateur poker player’s tale of parlaying an advance for a Harper’s piece on the World Series (and other related topics) into a miracle run to the final table and Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House, an apparently substantially apocryphal tale of MIT geeks who used their considerable mathematical abilities to bilk millions from Las Vegas casinos using card counting schemes. (Yes, the latter is about blackjack, but it seemed aimed squarely at the suddenly booming poker market and tapped into the same “get rich quick” bravado.)So, for the many poker novices who have taken up no-limit hold’em over the last few years, whether via a neighborhood game, or more likely online, the earlier, though not to say more innocent, years of no-limit hold’em and the World Series of Poker will be surprising in many ways.Such was my reaction to reading The Biggest Game in Town, a journalistic account of the 1981 World Series of Poker by New Yorker contributor and accomplished essayist, novelist, and poet A. Alvarez. On the one hand, it is interesting to know, some twenty years before ESPN began broadcasting poker seemingly every day, that the World Series, held annually since 1970 at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, was a notable event even back then. Alvarez describes “television teams trail[ing] their cables around the room,” major newspapers carrying the results, and spectators “packed against the rails.” At the same time, these early years seem almost impossibly quaint compared to the madness that is described on TV now. In 1981, there were 75 entrants competing for $375,000 in prize money. In 2007, it was 6,358 going after $8.25 million (and that was down from 8,773 and $12 million the prior year). Alvarez’s description of the players’ introductions sums up the scene:Jack Binion climbed onto a chair at the back of the room… He motioned for quiet, did not get it, then introduced the players over the babble of the casino: name, place of origin, a word or so of praise. His favorite description was “plenty tough.”This familial atmosphere allows for Alvarez to paint compelling profiles of a dozen or so of the participants. Unlike the online moonlighters and poker tourists that you might find at the World Series nowadays, these are hard-bitten bunch, and more candidly hooked on gambling than any drug addict and as prone to peaks and crashes. From the likes of Amarillo Slim, Johnny Moss, and Nick “the Greek” Dandalos emerges Doyle Brunson, a survivor in the poker world, thanks both to an uncharacteristically even-keeled demeanor compared to most of the poker pros that Alvarez meets and to a popular and highly technical poker manual he wrote, Doyle Brunson’s Super System: A Course in Power Poker. It’s not uncommon to see Brunson on ESPN still today, revered as a poker god among the hordes of newcomers. Even his children have become celebrity poker players.While Brunson and his small-town Texas bonhomie are at the heart of the book, his colleagues provide the color. What’s particularly interesting is that this book, far more than McManus’ Fifth Street, is a book about addicts. It just happens that these addicts are incredibly good at what they do and so can improbably make a living at it, albeit one that sometimes has them losing hundreds of thousands in a matter of hours and opening a line of credit with a casino (or some shadier operation) in order to get back on track.The World Series, we surmise, is just an attempt clean up poker and market these latter day cowboys for the tourists. It’s telling that the World Series itself isn’t particularly interesting to the participants, Alvarez, or this reader, rather it’s the numerous “cash games” that spring up when the world’s top poker players occupy the same zip code. In these games, which Alvarez describes with something like awe, the $375,000 that World Series participants spend a week competing for might be lost (and won) in a single hand. Members of the top-tier poker fraternity compete ruthlessly, and have no qualms about absolutely cleaning out the deep-pocketed amateur who gets in over his head. It’s an ugly world, lived in windowless rooms with smoky air, and trailing lost jobs and broken families. There’s glamor and excitement in the sums involved but, Alvarez’s book makes clear, never satisfaction.
If life is a novel, death is an editor. It strikes through every extraneous detail. It erases periods of divagation, inactivity, and muddle. What’s left is the stuff of obituaries and of eulogies: stories that fit together with a retrospective snap. Applied to public figures who spend their lives “on message,” this tendency to condense may even represent a kind of fulfillment. Writers are an odd subspecies of public figure, however – an expansively private one – and when a writer dies, our journalistic last rites run the risk of cutting his million-word testimony down to a stingy clutch of nouns. Thus David Foster Wallace and John Updike, the two greatest literary losses of the last year, get reduced to “difficulty” and “depression” (in the former case) and to “virtuosity” and “complacency” (in the latter).Another quirk of writers, though: they bequeath us the tools we need to reach our own conclusions, without the mediation of professionals. For those disinclined to snap judgments, the death of a novelist may invite a long – even leisurely – period of reconsideration. Meandering through the back catalogue (it’s all back catalogue now) even longtime readers may stumble on a different writer than the one they thought they knew.This spring, I found myself returning to Updike’s fiction of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I was startled by how it diverged from my memory of it. In particular, I was bowled over by the strangeness, the reckless compassion, and the emotional power of Rabbit Redux (1971). Late in life, Updike published a slimmer novel called Terrorist, which met with distinctly mixed reviews. Reviewers found fault with Rabbit Redux, as well, Updike confesses in his introduction to the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus. But, in its ardent engagement with the revolutionary zeitgeist of Nixon-era America, Rabbit Redux now looks to be Updike’s great novel of the age of political terror.The novel, the first sequel to the celebrated Rabbit, Run, opens with Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, American Everyman, more or less reconciled with the wife he abandoned in the earlier book. Updike lovingly describes the creature comforts that surround the Angstroms in Penn Villas, a middle-class suburb of decaying Brewer, Pennsylvania: their “flagstone porchlet,” their “door with its three baby windows arranged like three steps, echoing the door-chime of three stepped tones.” Their son Nelson is on the cusp of puberty, astronauts are about to make a moon landing, and all is right with the world, or at least hunky-dory.Rabbit soon discovers, however, that his wife, Janice, is contemplating an abandonment of her own. Now a working woman, she has succumbed to the charms of her coworker, Charlie Stavros. Stavros shows her an emotional and sexual solicitude Harry has never been capable of. The hell of it is, Harry can’t bring himself to hate Janice, or even her lover, an upwardly mobile, politically progressive ethnic food aficionado who seems to hail from some distant, shag-carpeted planet. Updike – the poet laureate of infidelity – can’t bring himself to hate the adulterers either. Indeed, both author and protagonist take Janice’s sexual awakening as an opportunity to interrogate the Eisenhower-era values of which Harry Angstrom is a repository… and to find them, in their inflexibility, wanting.Updike, who openly admired many of those values, has sometimes been characterized by writers to his left as a reactionary. However, a bravura early scene in which Angstrom and Stavros debate the war in Vietnam exposes this as a caricature. We sympathize with Stavros, who “‘can’t get too turned-on about cops bopping hippies on the head and the Pentagon playing cowboys and Indians all over the globe.'” He tells Janice, of Harry, “‘See how little and tight his mouth gets when he talks about politics?'” And we sympathize with Harry, who claims not to think about politics. “‘That’s one of my Goddam precious American rights,” he says, “not to think about politics… And it really burns me up to listen to hotshot crap-car salesmen dripping with Vitalis sitting on their plumped-up asses bitching about a country that’s been stuffing goodies into their mouth ever since they were born.” To which Charlie retorts, “‘I want to follow your reasoning. Tell me about the goodies we’ve been stuffing into Vietnam.'”More than Bellow in Mr. Sammler’s Planet (that other great response to ’60s-era unrest, and surely an influence here) Updike is willing to interrogate his own biases, to exercise negative capability. He seems to conclude that politics are personal on both sides of the ideological divide. Rabbit can’t disentangle the message from the messenger; Stavros can’t see what a lousy messenger he is. Which doesn’t mean they can’t try. Stavros will eventually try to persuade Janice to return to her husband. And Harry will touchingly parrot Stavros’ point-of-view later in the book, in an attempt to enlighten Janice’s father. Indeed, by this point, Rabbit Redux has assumed a form borrowed from the counterculture Updike is supposed to have hated: the consciousness-raising session.The middle section of the book, wherein Janice moves out of the house – is a long, strange, irresponsible trip. Harry begins smoking dope and exploring the down-and-out side of Brewer. He entangles himself with a teenage runaway named Jill and a petty criminal-cum-black-nationalist named Skeeter. Updike’s willingness to hurl himself into the thicket of American race relations is remarkable. “The bus has too many Negroes,” Harry thinks, at one point.Two of the men in the shop are Negroes, Farnsworth and Buchanan, you didn’t even notice; at least they remember how to laugh. Sad business, being a Negro man, always underpaid… But against these educated tolerant thoughts leans a certain fear; [Harry] doesn’t see why they have to be so noisyThis is what the world of many white male characters in novels might look like, stripped of political correctness and bad faith. I can imagine readers who are black, or are women, or both, taking exception to Jill and Skeeter, who hover somewhere between character and symbol. But Harry’s re-education at the hands of these outcasts, his awakening to the sources of his own basic good fortune, precipitates a real change in him. Perhaps it even precipitated a change in suburban readers, circa 1971, as a novel more deferential to pieties or circumspect about stereotypes could not.A prominent critic condemned a later Updike novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, for its “theological complacency.” For all I know, he may have been right. But this verdict is far too narrow to contain the vast corpus Updike left behind. Rabbit Redux shows a writer willing as few other American novelists are (Norman Rush comes to mind) to suspend judgment on his characters’ political, philosophical, moral, and theological failings – to love them anyway. Indeed, it is characteristic of Updike that the “rhetoric of social protest and revolt… antithetical to [his] Fifties education” (as he puts it in the omnibus introduction) aroused not his defenses, but his curiosity.Agitated by the times, his limpid prose in this book approaches the visionary. Near the end, Harry thinks of Jill, now gone, and remembers “her daughterly blind grass-green looking to him for more than shelter.” We are reminded, adverbially, of the daughter Harry lost in Rabbit, Run. Yet even in his redoubled grief – that extraordinary, comma-less catharsis – there is some hopeful green stuff woven. Rilke wrote that beauty was merely the beginning of the arc of terror. Rabbit Redux suggests a corollary: that terror may sometimes be the beginning of the arc of beauty.