Gambler’s Quartet follows the tragic story of an estranged mother and son trying to survive their own demons and defects in Reno, NV. Johnny Drake is struggling to come to terms with his father’s recent death after months of taking care of him. He is also struggling with his mixed feelings towards his gambler mother, Jenna, whose addiction and selfishness has caused him nothing but pain. Meanwhile, Jenna chases the god of luck in craps, sports bets, and a shady business venture in a new strip club/prostitution ring.
This short, dark novel jumps from p.o.v. between Jenna and Johnny, which allows the reader insight to each of their (often) misguided motives. The ability to see into both character’s minds helps to flesh them out; Jenna is more than the troubled gambler, she also has dreams and a dark history. Johnny is not just the grieving son with a resentment towards his mother, but is also still a child wishing for his mother’s love and attention.
While these inside views help the characters round out a little, it’s hard to feel much empathy for either of them. At first Johnny seems the good son, the one with his head on straight, but that quickly unravels. Why that unravels is unclear and never really shown, although one might guess it’s due to his father’s death, lack of a decent role model, and poor choice of friends (mostly his friend Bone, who introduces Johnny to cocaine). My trouble with Johnny’s fall from grace is that it happens too quickly and too drastically; the Johnny of chapter two is almost an entirely different character from the Johnny of chapter one.
That said, Gambler’s Quartet is an interesting novel that gives an insight into the dark side of Reno. The gambling, the loan sharks, the desperation to win, are all described in a straight forward and clear way. Summerhill doesn’t go overboard with it with gloomy language, but paints a picture that is easy to see, especially if you have any familiarity with Reno. It’s also the story of a dysfunctional, yet unique, mother-son relationship. And while it’s difficult to have much empathy for characters so determined to destroy themselves, the bite of their losses and destroyed lives is still palpable.
Gambler’s Quartet is a strong and captivating first novel from Summerhill. I am interested to see what he comes out with next.
After reading The Paris Review‘s disappointing Winter 2010 issue, I must say “Gold Mine” by Claire Vaye Watkins was its sole saving grace.
It’s a gripping story with multiple facets that really brings the reader in hard and fast. It tells the story of three characters: Darla, a popular prostitute at the Cherry Patch Ranch, Manny, the manager of said ranch, and Michele, a foreign visitor who mistakenly visits the ranch. All three characters are multi-faceted and bulk at the stereotypes characters such as these would typically be written as. Darla isn’t necessarily the prostitute with a heart of gold, though neither is she so hardened as to have no heart at all. Manny isn’t brutal and cruel with his girls, and Michele, while innocent, has his own drama going on.
The story takes place in Nevada, where only such a story could take place, just outside of Las Vegas. Watkins really paints the landscape well and portrays the whore house as a business, not a hell hole. I found it an interesting book end (as it is the last story in the review, followed only by a short poem) to Alexandra Kleeman’s “Fairy Tale” (read my review of that story here). Both stories were written by relatively unknown young female writers, but it was Kleeman’s (inferior) story that got so much attention.
The Nevada Review did an interview with Watkins which discusses her background as a Nevadan and her experience at Ohio State University’s MFA program. I for one am very excited about her upcoming collection of stories. She’s definitely an author to keep an eye on.
Vlautin’s The Motel Life and Lean on Pete are both heart-wincing novels about downtrodden young people who make mistakes, struggle, and somehow come out alright in the end. Northline is no different.
Northline is the story about a 23-year-old waitress named Allison who dropped out of high school and is dating a Neo-Nazi jerk in Las Vegas. When she finds herself to be pregnant, she forces herself to leave Vegas and her abusive boyfriend to go to Reno, where she gives the baby up for adoption. There she tries to move on with her life and to rise above her dark past with a little help from an overweight divorced woman and a hallucination of Paul Newman.
What Allison leaves behind in Las Vegas is a history of drinking, getting raped, being locked in her boyfriend’s trunk, and having a swastika tattooed on her while she was half-passed out. Her younger sister seems to be following in her footsteps while her mom watches television.
Vlautin has a very simple writing style, he tells the story in a “this is how it is” fashion, he doesn’t dress it up with flowery language or gratuitous details. It’s this writing style that makes his characters seem even more real, and the gritty lives they lead all the more believable. He sets his scenes up the same way, using sparse details but just enough to develop a setting easy to imagine. Reno is filled with bars and casinos while the air is filled with lowlifes and smoke. There’s no glamour in running away from home the way Vlautin describes it, and no beauty in Allison’s weakness. Even so, it’s easy to empathize with Allison and her self-loathing and self-destructive nature.
What I also love about this novel is Vlautin’s use of dialogue. All of the characters speak to each other in a very blunt and honest way, even when they are lying to each other. Dark secrets will be easily and succinctly revealed, and reactions to those secrets will be a shrug of the shoulders. For example, Dan, one of Allison’s regulars at the restaurant she works at, tells her that he is afraid of people his own age because a group of guys his age once beat him almost to death for no reason. Allison barely bats an eye at this revelation and merely tells him that she understands.
Northline is a great read, chopped up into short chapters for easy reading. It also includes an interview with the author and a short explanation on how this story came to be.