Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Joseph Walsh’s Gambler on the Loose

Joseph Walsh's 'Gambler on the Loose' (2008)A while back I picked up a copy of a book called Gambler on the Loose by Joseph Walsh. Walsh wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman’s 1974 film California Split, probably one of the best films around for portraying the gambler’s mentality. Also a lot of fun for the way it gives us a documentary-like glimpse of live poker in the early 70s. (For more on Split, see here.)

I had heard Walsh interviewed by Howard Schwartz on the Gamblers Book Club podcast back in July (the 7/12/08 episode). I keep recommending Schwartz’ podcast because it is one of the best ones out there right now, generally jumping to the front of my podcast queue whenever a new show gets delivered (every 2-3 weeks or so). Schwartz interviewed Walsh during the WSOP and they discussed his new book, and I eventually got myself a copy.

Gambler on the Loose is essentially Walsh presenting his own story, although the way it is written it doesn’t really conform to narrative expectations for autobiography. He starts back in the 1940s when he was a child actor, quickly getting into how he became interested in sports betting as a teen, then carries the story up through the making of California Split and into the 1970s. The book is presented as a series of anecdotes, many of which are built around various “lessons” or more simply observations about what it means to be a gambler.

The writing is infused with a kind of manic energy -- it is as though the wild, irrational impulses that sometimes drive the inveterate gambler are being exhibited by the author as well (he’s a “writer on the loose”). The result is a kind of homage-slash-diagnosis of the gambler, identifying all of his many neuroses and flaws without necessarily offering any real advice for overcoming them, but rather suggesting (repeatedly) this is how we are.

“Pressing your luck is something inherent in your DNA,” writes Walsh (using the second person, as he often does). “Basic intelligence has very little to do with this, and is very seldom called on. It only gets in the way of your fun.” That comes from a chapter titled “Willing Victims.”

I’m not going to write a full-fledged review of the book here. I will say the book is most definitely a fun read and even had me laughing out loud during certain stretches. I especially liked one passage in particular where Walsh tries to explain the difference between a gambler watching a sports event on which he’s placed a bet and “normal people” who watch simply as fans. Seems particularly appropriate to share on this day, with Game 1 of the World Series (of baseball, not poker) happening tonight. So you gamblers, take note.

“If you gamble, you cannot watch a game with a roomful of normal people,” explains Walsh. “Show me a man who prefers to watch a sporting event with a house full of guests and I’ll show you a man who is not one of us.” Rather, the non-gambling sports fan “is a frivolous human being willing to be carefree and have a good time, totally irresponsible to what it takes to pull the game in, which is worry, emotional outburst, face contorting, and basic begging.... He ranks right along with the man who doesn’t drink and is thrilled with himself. Neither one of them can be trusted.”

Walsh goes on to talk (only half-jokingly) about how such people “never experience true life.” Then comes what I thought to be one of the funniest passages in the book where he describes having to endure the very hell he is warning us all against.

“[T]he simple face of the whole thing is,” he explains, “watching a key game with a roomful of people [who aren’t gamblers] is very bad health-wise. I’m not just talking about the pellagra, scurvy or spinal meningitis that might be running rampant in that living room. I’m talking about the good primal scream of pain that has to be stifled on these occasions. Do you know what your insides go through because you’re not willing to share this terrifying sound with the guests? How many of them, do you think, have stifled the big one for you? When you start to understand how little these people have done for you, and how much you have done for them, the need for separation becomes clear....”

If yr curious about the book, here’s a website with more. Meanwhile, for those of you with something riding on the Phillies-Rays series, be certain to keep well clear of the “normal people.”

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Blogger LP said...

I'm going to have to give this book another look in light of what you said:
"The writing is infused with a kind of manic energy -- it is as though the wild, irrational impulses that sometimes drive the inveterate gambler are being exhibited by the author"

Interesting take on his writing style, which I wasn't too impressed by.

10/22/2008 12:36 PM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Yea, it is definitely not for everyone -- not necessarily the most "literary" or polished of narratives. But certainly earnest, and, like I say, funny as hell at times (to me, anyhow).

10/22/2008 12:43 PM  
Blogger 4everleeds said...

Shamus, it's been a while man. Now you hav a podcast as well. So pleased to see poker is still a big part of your life.


10/22/2008 4:09 PM  

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