Sunday, September 16, 2012

Early Autumn, A. Alvarez, The Savage God , and Night

As readers of this blog are aware, if there still are any, I like to read novels in season.  In September, as the leaves turn to gold, I turn to autumn mode, reading tales of harvest time, novels set in the early fall, the autumn woods, campus murder mysteries and such.

Last year's blogs for this month can be found at this link.
Deep in September, it's nice to remember when I was a tender and callow fellow, the wonderful zest of campus life, new romance or at least the potential for it, and the stimulation of learning new ideas.  Some of them later turned out to be old ideas and bogus, but they were new to me then and exciting at the time.

Since then I've read a lot of books, always looking for new knowledge, for a better perspective,  and occasionally for the exhilarating discovery--which some call the ah ha experience.  Sometimes I read simply to be entertained vicariously, for escape, comfort reads that reassure me yet again that there are other civilized minds out there, kindred spirits with the same sense of humanity.

Books are sometimes mirrors in which we find ourselves revealed.

Way back when, I might not have considered a book like A. Alvarez's The Biggest Game in Town, which is a memoir of Las Vegas and the World Series of Poker, published in 1983.  I discovered Alvarez when he was discussed by James McManus in his memoir, Positively Fifth Street.  Books naturally lead us to other books.

A. Alvarez (link), it turns out, is an acclaimed British author of novels, memoirs, poetry, and works of literary criticism.  He wrote a study of Samuel Beckett.  He was a friend to poet Sylvia Plath and wrote about her eloquently in The Savage God: A Study in Suicide.

Among the professional poker players Alvarez profiles in his Las Vegas memoir is Betty Carey, who also appears in Garry Wallace's essay on Cormac McCarthy.  Carey finished third in the World Series of Poker.  At the time, she was a fierce competitor and a laissez-faire libertarian.  She spoke out in favor of a winner-take-all stakes, without any other division of funds among the top finishers.

Listen to a sample observation from Alvarez:

"Glitter Gulch is for transients, most of them elderly and dressed to kill: old women in lime green or banana yellow or Florida orange pants suits, clutching Dixie cups of small change in one hand, the lever of one of Las Vegas's fifty thousand slot machines in the other; old men with plastic teeth and sky blue plastic suits shooting craps for a dollar, playing fifty-cent blackjack and three-dollar limit stud poker; wrecks in wheelchairs or with walking frames, the humped, the bent, the skeleton thin, and the obese, cashing in their Social Security checks, disability allowances, and pensions, waiting out their time in the hope of a miracle jackpot to transform their last pinched days.'

"All of them are animated by a terrible Walpurgisnacht jollity, gambler's optimism compounded by nostalgia.  THE GOOD OLD DAYS, say the neon signs, and 50 CENT BAR DRINKS...For the Snopses of this world, Glitter Gulch is the absurd last stop on the slow train to the grave.'

"The young are fewer and not much more presentable.  The trim straight-backed young people who roam with such grace and confidence around the rest of the United States and seem to be America's most triumphant export to Europe have mostly bypassed downtown Vegas.  Instead, the rule for both sexes is big bottoms, beer bellies, and skin muddied by Big Macs and french fries.  The boys have tattoos on their arms, and the girls' heads are permed and dyed so relentlessly that a natural head of hair seems like a visitation; you stare after it, thinking, who is that?"

Alvarez wrote that thirty years ago.  Now he is eighty-three, a year older than Clint Eastwood.  One wonders how much his outlook has changed.

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