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A Gambler's Anatomy


A Gambler's Anatomy

Alexander Bruno grew up fatherless in the seedy streets of San Francisco. His mother, June, moved with him from cult to terrible apartment to shelters until Bruno finally began, as a teenager, to make his own way, catching glimpses of June in public parks. The cool demeanor, charming banter and elegant body language he possesses as a grown-up were taught to him by a waiter named Konrad, who took his shy and handsome difference and cultivated it into a desirable sophistication.

That sophistication and attractiveness has served Bruno well, traveling the world as a professional backgammon player, most recently in Singapore as a quasi employee of a mysterious man named Edgar Falk. When Bruno passes out during a game Falk has set up for him, he finds himself first in a German hospital receiving some terrible news and then back in San Francisco at the mercy of a high school acquaintance, recovering from major surgery.

Alexander Bruno is the strange, unsettling and compelling figure at the center of Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, A GAMBLER’S ANATOMY.

"The novel is well written, without a doubt; Lethem turns a mean phrase and creates bold and freaky characters."

Tests and examinations after the seizure that knocks Bruno out during the game in Germany reveal a rare type of tumor, one that has grown incredibly large inside his face. The threat of blindness, incapacitation and imminent death puts Bruno in the uncomfortable position of accepting help from Keith Stolarsky. Stolarsky is someone Bruno doesn’t remember from childhood but who he had recently run into in Singapore. He was mostly interesting to Bruno because of his companion, the lovely and fascinating Tira Harpaz. Why, though, would Stolarsky agree to pay to bring Bruno back to the States, take care of all his medical expenses, and give him an apartment to live in, new clothes and even spending money?

Back in California, Bruno is faced with the realities of the childhood he has tried to forget: his mother’s instability, his own aimless isolation, and the accident that scarred his body but freed him from the telepathy that pained him. The surgery to remove the tumor has reversed the effects of an earlier hospitalization that allowed him to shut off the voices of others in his mind and create a safe, albeit lonely, emotional distance. Without that distance, without a means to support himself, and without the game of backgammon, Bruno is vulnerable and susceptible to outside influence. He is increasingly at the mercy of Stolarsky, who has him working, wearing a gruesome mask, at his burger joint, and he is increasingly smitten with Tira, whose relationship with Stolarsky is complicated and whose feelings for Bruno are confusing. He also forges bonds with some anti-Stolarsky radicals who embezzle funds to bring Madchen, a woman Bruno briefly met in Germany, to come stay with him.

These relationships are tangled and messy, and no commitments are reliable or loyalties true in Lethem’s story. In fact, it is not always clear what Bruno means when he refers to his telepathy, nor is it clear if these characters are really who they appear to be at first.

The game of backgammon is a driving thematic force in A GAMBLER’S ANATOMY, but so are masks and conspiracies. Bruno, as are most of the characters apparently, is a pawn or plaything of terrible and terribly rich people. Yet it is in that role that he seems most comfortable and content: divorced from any memories, actions or decisions beyond the backgammon board. It makes for an intriguing and disconcerting read. The novel is well written, without a doubt; Lethem turns a mean phrase and creates bold and freaky characters. Not every reader may come away satisfied, but like the marks Bruno hustles, they may find it hard to walk away from or ignore this interesting spectacle.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 27, 2016

A Gambler's Anatomy
by Jonathan Lethem

  • Publication Date: September 5, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1101873671
  • ISBN-13: 9781101873670