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‘A Gambler’s Anatomy’ review: Jonathan Lethem’s quirky new novel is about a psychic backgammon hustler

Jonathan Lethem, author of

Jonathan Lethem, author of "A Gambler's Anatomy." Photo Credit: Adrian Cook

A GAMBLER’S ANATOMY, by Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, 289 pp., $27.95.

To riff on “A Gambler’s Anatomy,” the title of Jonathan Lethem’s 10th novel, 48-year-old Alexander Bruno can be dissected and summarized in three quick moves.

First, for 30 years he has avoided Berkeley — scene of his childhood and home to yet another of Lethem’s lost or missing mothers, this one homeless when Bruno last saw her.

Second, he’s constructed a personality as a suave and slightly rakish James Bond type, rubbing elbows with the beautiful people while flitting among the world’s metropoles.

Third, he’s funded his highflying lifestyle playing backgammon, a game that’s obsessed him since he was 12. Its dice, he’s convinced, aren’t “determining fate so much as revealing character.”

What they’ve revealed — and made — of Bruno is another “cell of one,” to steal a phrase from Lethem’s “Dissident Gardens” (2013). One continually meets such characters in Lethem’s fiction, in which each such soul indulges a superhero’s illusion that one might float free of the world, controlling destiny.

What these characters can’t control is time, which catches up with Bruno in the form of a malignant growth in his brain, blotting his “vision like a tunnel of dark he approached and might soon enter.”

Bruno’s blot is an apt metaphor for our narrowing options as we move closer to death. It also embodies another perennial Lethem theme, involving the difference between surface and underlying depth.

On the one hand, characters like Bruno fantasize that life might be played out as a series of shape-shifting disguises, “worn as a cloak of unapproachability” that seemingly render one invisible and invulnerable during each performance on the world’s stage.

Then there’s reality: A gambler’s run of bad luck and consequent debts; an expensive surgery to remove that nasty tumor; the scarred ruin of a once-handsome face; and an evil nemesis named Keith Stolarsky, who’d idolized Bruno in high school and now relishes the chance to prove that he has come out on top in life’s game of chance.

It’s hard to argue. Stolarsky owns a healthy chunk of Berkeley real estate, which allows him to whisk Bruno to California for a lifesaving operation — one of the many ostensibly magnanimous gestures through which Stolarsky drives home that he’s saved Bruno’s body so that he might eventually own Bruno’s soul.

The ensuing struggle plays out at a heightened pitch and can be very funny; “A Gambler’s Anatomy” marks one of Lethem’s periodic returns to those lighter (and shorter) novels reminding us that this prodigiously talented writer isn’t always trying to write the great American novel.

Like every Lethem novel, “A Gambler’s Anatomy” is also loaded with piquant aphorisms and spot-on descriptions.

“Money, like anesthesia, kept you alive and asleep.” Burger-eating students are “handcuffed to giant narcotic sandwiches.” Polarized San Francisco is a “futuristic cartoon” combining a “top layer” as “slick as Abu Dhabi” and an “underside” as “gritty as Mumbai, with no one on the N-Judah bus except untouchables.”

As Bruno recognizes, he “had likely descended to the status of untouchable himself.”

Bruno’s operation saves his life and clears his vision, but it doesn’t mean there’s much to see or savor. Bruno may not have ever amounted to much. But having lost whatever he once was, he’s alternately daunted and nonplussed by the idea of figuring out who he’s since become — or what to make of the rest of his life.

As with the political lefties he chronicled in “Dissident Gardens” — or the hilarious anarchist who cooks greasy sliders in “A Gambler’s Anatomy” — Lethem fares best when taking apart our current stories of self and world.

This novel is less compelling when imagining Bruno’s efforts to construct something new. Par for the course: This isn’t the first Lethem novel concluding that every such effort is doomed because every game is rigged. Sometimes, a character like Bruno suggests, all we can hope to do is nevertheless play on.

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