In Piacenza’s debut novel, a couple’s new relationship is threatened by internal and external forces.
Sonny, an ambitious chess player and former UFC fighter, now works as a dealer in a low-rent casino after being blacklisted from the World Series of Poker. He’s entangled in an unlikely relationship with part-Apache Jen, who was raised on a reservation. She ends their disastrous first date with an ambiguous line, leaving Sonny “fairly certain” that he was insulted. In time, the two trade stories of checkered pasts while warming up to one another. But someone is angling to drive them apart—or possibly even kill them. Why else would men blast holes into Sonny’s trailer with the couple still inside? The story flourishes when it zeroes in on the liaison between Sonny and Jen; both characters have strong personalities and a willingness to talk about anything from their private histories to religion. But without a cohesive narrative arc, the plot points sometimes feel disconnected. Ultimately, though, it all attempts to converge—even the lengthy, surprisingly diverting sequence detailing Sonny and his mentor, Al, at a chess tournament. Readers unfamiliar with chess will appreciate the straightforward writing style, which explains some jargon—a “skittles room,” for example, is not a place for colorful candy—and helps decipher the game. Piacenza’s subdued humor also stands out: Jen questions Sonny’s apparent listlessness during their date, not-so-slyly suggesting that he’s gay; an older couple, Honus and Helga, may be a little too frank when talking about their sex lives; and Sonny’s colleague, Milt, who has no rating at the chess tournament, must play against 7-year-olds. He leaves them in tears.
A striking, unconventional story about a couple surviving the odds.