Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘A Gambler’s Anatomy’ |

Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘A Gambler’s Anatomy’


‘A Gambler’s Anatomy’

Jonathan Lethem

304 pages, hardcover; $27.95

Doubleday, 2016

The great American novelist Jonathan Lethem’s new book is a tale of a dashing James Bond-esque character navigating the glamorous, scandalous, secret world of high-stakes backgammon. So how did it end up being so dull?

Alexander Bruno is an expat who can read minds, hopping between games in Asia and Europe with his smarmy bankroller. He’s bored with his life, which, in this novel, makes him a pretty boring guy to follow around the world. A medical breakdown in Berlin ends his lucky streak and a massive tumor in his skull will send him home to the Berkeley he fled long ago, and eventually send this disappointing novel off the rails.

It seems at first like Lethem is going to shake off the grand ambitions of triumphant wide-scope novels like “The Fortress of Solitude” and “Dissident Gardens,” and instead write a noir-ish caper. I’d love to read that book from him, but “A Gambler’s Anatomy” isn’t it.

The only man who might be able to save Bruno’s life is an eccentric Bay Area neurosurgeon developing a radical procedure. This savior surgeon lures Bruno back to his Berkeley “homeland of bullying, psychosis and bad taste.” A high school acquaintance, who has turned into a gentrifying developer and a cackling neighborhood villain, foots the bill for mysterious reasons.

The surgeon blasts Jimi Hendrix throughout the procedure, escapes into a fantasy world as he operates and flummoxes his young assistants by asking for “an anecdote with uncomfortable sexual content.” The details of the 15-hour surgery, in which Bruno’s face is opened like a door, are not for the squeamish. But it’s a page-turning read as Lethem dissects the hierarchy of surgeons and regales us with the wild life of a rock’n’roll doctor. This middle part of the novel is masterfully and exuberantly written. It grabs you in a way that the backgammon bits and the ensuing coming-home sections never do.

From there, Bruno wanders about Berkeley wearing a medical mask, he tries to get excited about lusting after one woman and loving another, he flips burgers under the nickname “The Martyr of Anarchy” and gets wrapped up in a cartoonish battle over the commercialization of Berkeley. Though there are some exquisite sentences and some laughs to enjoy as the novel peters out, this roll of the dice is a misfire for Lethem.

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