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by Paul Auster

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1990
ISBN: 0140154078
Publisher: Viking

Less ambitious and satisfying than Auster's last two novels (In The Country of Last Things, Moon Palace), this equally improbable tale seems a bit hastily conceived, with too many blurry edges and no compelling center to keep things in focus. Jim Nashe, a 33-year-old Boston firefighter down on his luck, decides to give his life over to chance. In rapid order, his wife walks out on him and their two-year-old daughter; he inherits $200,000 from a father he hasn't seen in 30 years; he leaves his daughter with his sister in Minnesota; and he begins zigzagging across America in a brandnew Saab. With less than $20,000 left, the rambling Nashe picks up a hitchhiker ("A wiry little runt") named Jack "Jackpot" Pozzi—a traveling poker pro and fellow member of, as he calls it, "The International Brotherhood of Lost Dogs." Jim becomes partners with Jack, staking him in a match with two eccentric, lottery-winning millionaires in remote Pennsylvania. An "atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust" hovers over their strange estate, where one works on his visionary model of a city and the other houses a vast collection of historical ephemera ("a graveyard of shadows, a demented shrine to the spirit of nothingness"). In their ultimate game of chance, the young partners lose all, and then some, becoming virtual slaves of the obnoxious rich men. Soon Jim and Jack are plunged into a world of backbreaking labor and arbitrary authority, until Jack is beaten senseless for trying to escape, and Jim becomes "crazy with loneliness," a prisoner in his "private hell." When Jim wins his final freedom, he celebrates with an unpredictable act of violence that affirms his assumption of control. But by this point, the novel has abandoned dramatic plausibility for some elusive, abstract notions about randomness and personal responsibility. Auster's in thrall to an idea here, and the more traditional aspects of narrative (plot, character, etc.) suffer as a consequence; without being redeemed by alternative ones. Despite some intrigue, a disappointing work.