'The Music of Chance' is both sinister and philosophical


"The Music of Chance," by Paul Auster, 217 pages, Viking Penguin Inc., New York, N.Y., $18.95.

IN PAUL Auster's novel "The Music of Chance," his protagonist Jim Nashe has achieved one of the great American dreams: total, aimless, irresponsible mobility. Then, on one turn of a card, he is cast into absolute, stony, immobile subjugation.

In a novel driven by coincidence -- and an omnipotent, manipulative narrator -- Jim Nashe does indeed dance to the music of chance. He's fallen into the hands of blind fate, and a crafty and ambitious author, and at the end meets his death with his eyes closed.

Nashe is freed, or perhaps unhinged, from everyday life by a $200,000 inheritance left him by a father he has not seen since he was 2.

He buys a red Saab and begins driving. He's set himself into motion, caroming around the country, rocketing down the long empty roads of the American night.

Auster captures wonderfully the compelling allure and pull that endless, destinationless driving has for the American psyche.

"Speed was of the essence," Auster writes, "the joy of sitting in the car and hurtling himself forward through space. That became a good beyond all others, a hunger to be fed at any price . . .

"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 . . ."

Nashe's troubles begin when he stops driving; he then literally assumes new burdens, with a vengeance.

Nashe has been on the road a year and two or three days when he picks up a ratty, beat-up, professional gambler named Jack Pozzi, "Jackpot" to his friends. The guys who beat and stripped him of his money after a poker game were not his friends.

Sore and angry, Jackpot is most unhappy because he's lost the chance to play in a high-stakes poker game with "a born pair of chumps" he calls Laurel and Hardy because one's fat and the other's thin.

The fat one's name is Flower, the thin one, Stone. They share their first name, William -- Bill Flower and Willie Stone. They shared a $27 million Pennsylvania state lottery payoff. And they now share a strange isolated estate near Ockham, Pa.

There Willie Stone has built an enormous, minutely detailed model town he calls the City of the World. He's peopled his imaginary city with vivid, inch-high figures including himself and Flower buying their lottery ticket.

Bill Flower collects exotic celebrity trivia: a Winston Churchill cigar butt, a 1927 Babe Ruth sweat shirt, a pearl earring worn by Sir Walter Raleigh and 10,000 stones that are all that remain of a 15th century Irish castle.

Nashe bankrolls Jackpot in the game with his last $10,000. Needless to say Jackpot loses. Nashe offers his car for a final hand. They lose. Nashe then cuts the cards for his car against a $10,000 debt. He cuts a four against Flower's seven.

Now the game turns sinister. Stone and Flower coerce Nashe and Jackpot into settling their debt by building a wall with the 10,000 stones from the Irish castle: $10 an hour each, 10 hours a day for 50 days.

They move into a trailer in the remote meadow where the wall will be built, 2,000 feet long, and 10 rows high -- 10 rows of a thousand 60-pound stones each. They are supervised by a dull, taciturn man named Calvin Murks.

Murks lurks, and he packs a gun after Jackpot takes a swing at him. Nashe and Jackpot are not exactly prisoners, but they are not free either. The Ockham estate is surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with a tangle of barbed wire.

Nashe slips into the rhythm of the work; he comes to believe "the work was going to make them free." Which is, of course, an echo of the motto over the gates of Auschwitz: "Arbeit macht Frei," work will make you free. It doesn't.

"The Music of Chance" seems direct and simple and as ominous as any lizard black novel by Jim Thompson, the avatar of noir. But the book reverberates with echoes and allusions and illusions.

Willie and Bill of Ockham, Pa., will recall William of Ockham, the great medieval theologian, for those schooled in scholastic philosophy. The rest of us can consult our pocket encyclopedias.

Willie and Bill beat Jackpot because they've been taught to play poker by Sid Zeno, who, of course, will suggest Zeno of Elea, the ancient master of paradox.

Zeno of Elea and William of Ockham were both philosophers of motion. They agreed, more or less, that since motion is a series of discrete moments, you're moving just as fast standing still as in full flight.

Nashe is therefore, paradoxically, just as much in motion building his wall as when he's driving his Saab at eight-five miles an hour. But then again you're much more likely to be dead when you hit something at 85 mph than when you're standing around contemplating philosophy.

You don't have to mull over all this stuff to enjoy Paul Auster's book, but he'd probably like you to.

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