There were few places on the ship less conducive to reading than the library. In the summer of 2000, in my early twenties, I was stationed aboard an aircraft carrier. The library sat directly beneath the flight deck, which means that in addition to the thump, rattle, and screech of the planes as they landed, there was the heat from the catapults and their fuel, a heat so thick it invaded your respiration like some perniciously odorless fume, trespassing on your psyche and then inhabiting it. Reading there was out of the question, but we weren’t on the ship to read. Which is why it always surprised me how many great books they had in that library.
I found one of the greatest purely by chance. I knew neither the book, Memoir of a Gambler, nor its author, Jack Richardson. It was the title that hooked me. Our ship would soon be returning to San Diego, after a six-month cruise throughout the Pacific Ocean and Arabian Sea, and so I knew I would soon be gambling again. Having already become a devotee of the sports-gambling culture of San Diego—or, more specifically, its adjunct playground of Tijuana—I needed little encouragement. But in the book I now held in my hands, I would find plenty of encouragement anyway.
On the cover, this Jack Richardson struck a classically arch pose, arms crossed in a subdued brown sport coat and vest, staring self-importantly into the camera; beside him, on a circular bar-table sat a gleaming, thickly cut glass ashtray, a lone cigarillo perched on its edge. The back cover featured a blurb from William Styron (a notoriously selective blurber, even on behalf of friends), proclaiming, “Jack Richardson is a wonderful writer and his book is a powerful portrayal of one man’s obsession—sad, hilarious, erotic, and, above all, pitilessly honest. I read Memoir of a Gambler with fascination and delight.” The bio inside the back flap revealed that the author was a distinguished playwright who had also written for many of the magazines I cherished most, and then, on the copyright page, a partial explanation for why I did not recognize him from any of those magazines: “Copyright ©1979.”
Rescuing it from the discomfort of the library, I quickly realized that this book was as remarkable as it seemed to be. Late at night on watch, when I’d rotated off the radarscope for an hour or two, I would sit under lamplight in our dark module’s luminous blue glow and absorb Richardson’s promise of those illicit mysteries that, I knew from experience, awaited me onshore. What I read both accelerated and amplified my imagination.
Having reached “that nodal year of thirty,” Richardson writes, with a desire to have his “life weighed, analyzed, and pronounced rare,” yet still having “found nothing conclusive about its samplings,” there was at least “one thing [that] began to snap me into a state of keen sensitivity over and over again. I had begun to gamble.” He confesses that his moments at the underground blackjack tables of New York City “were providing me with the only hard evidence that I was indeed living.” He reveals, too, that his mother, “who considered me extraordinary,” gave him a roulette wheel for Christmas when he was ten or eleven.
The book then assumes the classic shape of quest narrative, as Richardson leaves his life behind, carrying with him not much more than a fixed sum of money that he vows to replenish and enlarge, continually, with the earnings of his own efforts at the tables. In Vegas, following his first big win, he celebrates this auspicious start to his journey by laying freshly won bills out on his bed, just walking around them, considering them in “exaltation.” Then he lets in the hooker he’s ordered, which allows him to begin a new chapter, in which he remembers his mother’s demand that he be “exceptional,” and how disappointed she was in this demand when she learned of the means by which he’d first lost his virginity—that is, in a situation similar to the way in which he was now about to deface his bed full of cash. “At least,” he writes, “she would see that I had had my necessary torments and that, to honor our old visions, I was still trying to be exceptional.”
The whole book is like that: situations giving way to memories, which in turn give way to essays. (The above chapter, for instance, was published in Harper’s, while others were published in Esquire, the New York Review, Playboy, and Commentary.) Gambling provides him a through line by which he can revisit his life in all its various phases and stages. He writes about childhood with a rawness and candor that is both disturbing and refreshing, especially when he gets on to sports gambling and evokes the strangeness of what happened when his father took him to his first ballgame. He writes about his time in the army during the Korean War. And he writes about the time he studied philosophy in Munich before beginning “a private purge of those philosophers whose errors I considered the most dangerous to an honest state of mind.” He also writes about his failed marriage to Anne Richardson Roiphe, which she would later write about, too, in Art and Madness. (Uncharacteristically, he doesn’t write about being the first writer to discover Elaine’s, though it was he who essentially made it the legendary hangout for writers.)
Still, running through it all, is the quest. In the desert outside Vegas, he meets a strange, nefarious character who offers to teach him the secrets of cheating he is no longer capable of practicing himself, due to having been, by this point, both recognized and mutilated for his past efforts. In Gardena, California, he begins an affair with a high-rolling poker player who may or may not have murdered her last lover. (It’s also where someone at a casino tells him, “It’ll liven up, son. I hear part of the fleet’s come into San Diego. That means we should be gettin’ a lot of sailor boys down here over the weekend. You can squeeze a lot of juice from them.” This was obviously before Tijuana became the only place San Diego sailors would ever consider gambling, even while it proves that, in the main, some things never change.) Then he’s off to Hong Kong, where all kinds of weird shit happens and where his narrative concludes, inconclusively.
Along the way he is tortured by “contempt, disappointment, memories of failure and self-indulgence.” He finds himself, at one juncture, “twisted … into a fetal coil when I imagined my present condition viewed by all those who would relish its agonies.” He experiences “phantoms” that leave “behind them an aching fear that, like so many voyages in my past, this one would wear itself out, without providing any vital discoveries about the world, or my place in it.” He decides he has never before suffered these effects “with such clarity, or with such fear that they were more than temporary discomforts.”
I was not equipped, back then, to notice Richardson’s self-absorption, any more than I was equipped to heed its warnings. Some things you really do need to learn for yourself. After hitting San Diego with Richardson’s book buzzing in my brain, I learned many of them, and most of those more than once. I don’t regret it—I do not. I feel nothing but sorry for someone who doesn’t carry around in their memory one stupid-sublime summer, when they really believed the house can keep on being beat. Jack Richardson helped give me that summer, just as surely as he helped give me its unhappy denouement and all attendant losses, financial and extra-financial both. I’ll probably never even have a chance to thank him.