"Gambler's Rose," by G.W. Hawkes. MacMurray & Beck. 260 pages. $26.95.
It's not just characters in David Mamet dramas and the marvelous prestidigitator Ricky Jay who teach us that every man has a card up his sleeve; it's the times we live in. Play a hand and become a millionaire, another and you fold. Play what you're dealt, accept the luck of the draw, ante up ... even the lingo of cards is heady, arcane, hinting at strategy, power and sex.
Heck, I don't know the first thing about poker and I enjoy the talk, with its confusion of lies and bluffs, stakes and risks. Throw in an accomplished cheat and I'm hooked. We all are. Brazen cardsharps may be the last low-tech brainiacs in business, which makes them much more romantic than Internet hackers or the slime who snoop telephone calling-card numbers at airport pay phones.
G.W. Hawkes throws a family of cheats into "Gambler's Rose," a tight curl of a novel whose title refers to the pretty spiral pattern a deck of cards makes when its spun with a finger. The patriarch of this all- male clan is the mellifluously named Music Halloran, who raised his two sons, Reggie and Charlie, to be even better cheats than he is.
The three like to beat the odds through a combination of treacherous skill and crazy nerve. But on the eve of a breathtaking, big-stakes game in Hawaii -- this is 1971 we're talking about -- Charlie meets Lia, a mathematician whose specialty is chaos. And bingo, the man is a goner. Smitten. By a woman capable of shuffling consequences (and language) just as deftly as he is. "At the heart of this new science I'm studying is the idea that there's a rigid order in apparent randomness," says Lia.
"So God stacks the deck too," says Halloran.
"Maybe we all do, or try our best to, given the opportunity. That's not cheating, that's sense."
"Then I'm the most sensible man you've ever met."
"Gambler's Rose" is full of exchanges like this, badinage meant to push the other person to the edge. This is mostly fun, like listening in on an illegal wiretap. But the concentrated pithiness is also sometimes exhausting, like a card game that's gone on too long, making the players punchy, a little belligerent, and a little repetitious, too.
Hawkes, a novelist and short-story writer who co-directs a college writing program in Pennsylvania, loves the snap and riffle of his own words, whether describing the technicalities of crooked games, or the brilliance of a Hawaiian night where "the skin of stars ripples as if it were a sheet tugged by an invisible hand."
As a novel about how to cheat at cards, "Gambler's Rose" possesses its own prickly sense of authenticity. (Sailors will like it, too; a beautiful 62-foot two-masted boat won by Music Halloran holds pride of place.) As a novel about relationships between men and women, fathers and sons, it's almost a little too quick to organize behavior into diamonds and hearts. But as a parable about when to abandon a worn-out defense strategy in favor of a high-risk, high-yield venture like love, it's aces.
Lisa Schwarzbaum is a regular contributor to national magazines and critic for Entertainment Weekly. She was previously feature writer at the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine and has worked for the Boston Globe and the Real Paper.
Pub Date: 02/27/00