By Paul Auster
Another weird and wonderful story from Paul Auster. My last encounter was The New York Trilogy, and I’m definitely seeing some recurring themes in his work, which is not necessarily a bad thing since Auster’s got the po-mo deconstruction of genre fiction down pat and he does it quite well.
Jim Nashe, an ordinary everyman kinda guy suddenly inherits some money from his father, whom he hasn’t seen since he was a boy. He leaves his job as a fireman, buys a new car and drives all over America, succumbing to a solipsistic addiction to long-distance driving. After several months, he realizes he’s going to run out of money soon if he doesn't do something about it. On a quiet road, he comes across a young card shark named Jack Pozzi who got away from a poker game gone sour. For Nashe it’s like a match made in heaven:
He would play the old man to Pozzi’s upstart, using the advantage he had in size and age to give off an aura of hard-earned wisdom, a steadiness that would counterbalance the kid’s nervous, impulsive manner.
Soon enough, Nashe offers to bankroll Pozzi’s next game with two wealthy eccentrics named Flower and Stone, who love poker, but are amateur players -- easy money. When Nashe and Pozzi arrive at the mansion, they learn that Flower and Stone became millionaires by winning the lottery. The card game becomes a contest of luck, and the outcome has very dire consequences for Nashe and Pozzi.
Like The NY Trilogy’s po-mo take on the detective genre, TMoC starts off with very familiar narrative motifs - man running away from his past, gambling buddies-on-the-road, poker game gone wrong – then at some point switches to something surreal and scary well after you’re suckered into what seems like an amusing and conventional story. Auster can also take a well-worn cliché, like a budding yet unlikely friendship, and make it work with solid thoughtful writing:
All during Pozzi’s reminiscences, Nashe had inevitably thought about his own boyhood, and the curious correspondence he found between their two lives had struck a chord in him: the early abandonment, the unexpected gift of money, the abiding anger. Once a man begins to recognize himself in another, he can no longer look on that person as a stranger. Like it or not, a bond is formed. Nashe understood the potential trap of such thinking, but at that point there was little he could do to prevent himself from feeling drawn to this lost and emaciated creature. The distance between them had suddenly narrowed.
Nothing's perfect however. There are times where Auster resorts to heavy-handed symbolism and trite existentialism, but for the most part, I found The Music of Chance quite a mesmerizing read. And I like the deceptively simple writing. There’s always this dreamy sense of foreboding, which compels me to keep reading, even though I know something meaningless and terrible is going to happen to the protagonist. Although his characters tend to be rather archetypal and cipher-like, Auster is also really good at making you immediately identify with them. When he describes Nashe on the road in his car, it just makes me want to jump in a car and drive to the hills:
He was a fixed point in a whirl of changes, a body poised in utter stillness as the world rushed through him and disappeared. The car became a sanctum of invulnerability, a refuge in which nothing could hurt him anymore. As long as he was driving, he carried no burdens, was unencumbered by even the slightest particle of his former life… After three or four months, he had only to enter the car to feel that he was coming loose from his body, that once he put his foot down on the gas and started driving, the music would carry him into a realm of weightlessness.
Empty roads were always preferable to crowded roads. They demanded fewer slackenings and decelerations, and because he did not have to pay attention to other cars, he could drive with the assurance that his thoughts would not be interrupted.
A good solid satisfying read! Apparently there is also a film adaptation from the mid-90's starring Mandy Patinkin and James Spader, two of the last actors I would picture playing the role of Nashe and Pozzi respectively, so I'm a little wary of check it out... unless it's really good, of course!