#BeatTheBacklist book 1
2017 book 1
Format: Print (hardcover)
Length: 289 pages
What It’s About (no spoilers)
Alexander Bruno is, of all things, a professional backgammon gambler. When we meet him he is on an unlucky streak that may or may not have something to do with the blind spot or “blot” forming in the middle of his field of vision. The story opens with Bruno in Berlin after having left Singapore in a bit of a hurry. He is making a last ditch effort to restore his stake, which is actually the stake of his strange and wealthy patron, Edgar Falk. His luck does not improve in Berlin. In fact, it worsens and he finds himself in a hospital where he learns that his blot is a symptom of a serious, perhaps even deadly, condition.
Destitute and alone, he is rescued by an old frenemy, Keith Stolarsky. Stolarsky uses his seemingly bottomless wealth to pay for Bruno’s medical treatment and much more. This is where things get weird. Also, one or both of them may be telepathic.
What I Thought
Lethem is an author that I wish I could be friends with. This NYT article reporting on a few of the contents of a collection of writings and miscellaneous nonsense that he sold to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University only reinforced that desire. The man has an extensive collection of drawings of vomiting cats!!! Yes, please.
The main character, Bruno, is very compelling. His vocation is nutty. Are there international backgammon gambling rings? I really hope so, but suspect not. The persona he has built for himself as an aloof international man of mystery playboy is perfect spy novel fodder, but Lethem makes him relatable. Bruno’s sincerity and troubled childhood make him feel more like a real human being and less like the love child of James Bond and Minnesota Fats. What I like best about him may be his willingness to see where life takes him. Some may see Bruno as weak and inactive, but I believe he has a subtle wisdom. Bruno knows that some things cannot be controlled. He knows the difference between the roll of the dice and how you use the numbers that roll reveals.
Other characters in this book fell flat for me. Stolarsky’s motives are unclear to me, Tira as well. Plybon is a caricature. Madchen is… actually, she’s fantastic and tragic and not quite a hooker with a heart of gold, but she wants to be and that’s something at least.
I have read most of Lethem’s work and I love the way he interweaves the real and the impossible so fluidly. My complaint about this book is that the impossible aspects are far too subtle. Bruno’s belief in his telepathic powers is not explored nearly enough for most of the novel.
I enjoyed this book and am glad I read it, but if you have not read anything by Jonathan Lethem before, I wouldn’t recommend starting here.
See my proposed list of #BeatTheBacklist books here.