I usually stay away from fiction books about gambling and casinos because often the author displays his or her total lack of knowledge of gambling games as the book progresses. That can get irritating when you?ve invested your time only to find out on page 103 that the writer hasn?t a clue as to what happens in a casino or to casino players.
I remember once reading an otherwise decent book that took the protagonists to Atlantic City where they played blackjack using $20 purple chips and tried to hit to hands of 21, no matter what the dealer had showing -- and these characters, the author insisted, were supposed to be savvy gamblers. He even got the location of individual Atlantic City casinos wrong! (Aren?t there supposed to be editors that check these things at major publishers?) It almost ruined the experience for me. Luckily, the author got them out of town before I got up and threw the book out. (The one glaring exception to the above was Mario Puzo?s Fools Die, a brilliant book.)
So, when Kevin Blackwood?s book came to me, it had to face my distrust of gambling fiction, and also the fact that I have never heard of the publisher. The book had obviously been read in galley form by some prominent gaming authorities as the back cover was liberally sprinkled with quotes about its virtues.
Good enough to give me a reason to read some of it.
So I started reading. Immediately I was struck with a scene that I felt was labored and false. The protagonist, Raven Townsend, is playing at a casino and a young lady, obviously a chip hustler or hooker, is asking questions. The dealer is explaining the essence of card counting to her. Those questions were heavy-handedly designed, it seemed to me, to inform the readers about the mechanics of card counting and I thought, ?this book is going to be laborious. I?ll give it thirty pages.?
It didn?t take thirty pages. Once that initial, and strained, conversation took place, the book took off. I couldn?t put it down. Blackwood weaved a world of professional blackjack with a quest for truth and identity, a love lost and found, and a rollicking series of adventures that culminated in a showdown at the conclusion that was teeth clenching and stomach tightening.
The Counter is a book that is everything its blurbs say it is. The blackjack information is right on the money. Scene after crackling scene I kept saying to myself: ?I?ve been there and done that, wow!? Mr. Blackwood knows the game inside and out, and he has liberally sprinkled the book with, I believe, true life adventures and thinly veiled true-life characters. (Blackjack buffs might be able to pin down these characters!)
Still a work of fiction has to be more than just a series of blackjack anecdotes, no matter how appealing. Such anecdotes are fine for nonfiction, how-to books in order to take away the tedium of reading serious strategic matters. A work of fiction has to have a search for truth, be it the little truth of an individual?s existence that we can relate to or be it the big truths about the very nature of existence itself. A novel has to be, well, novel, in the strictest sense of that word. Otherwise why get involved? Why not just live your own life, which is novel enough?
Blackwood?s first novel is indeed novel. His main character, Raven Townsend, is a fully drawn, unique individual with a moral compass that starts spinning uncontrollably as the story progresses. In fact, the core of the novel is Raven?s search for his sense of self and the meaning of his life. At first, the love of God and a reverential fundamentalist Christianity consume him. He desires to be a great archeologist; he wants to discover Noah?s Ark. He also wants to unload the guilt associated with a deed done in youth that has caused him shame. But as he attends and graduates college, money and materialism become his lifeboat. As he gets deeper and deeper into the world of professional blackjack play, and as his bankroll grows from a mere $5,000 to over $800,000, he becomes the foil, pawn, and then scapegoat of some very well-drawn, shady characters (one of them highly reminiscent of the late, great, blackjack guru Ken Uston).
He finds himself banned by casinos in Vegas, Mississippi and the Islands; he is hoodwinked by his cronies. He discovers that the girl he loves, a throwback to a time when women ruled the moral roost, is repelled by his career choice and disgusted with his growing immorality. His father, a man of simple vision and strong principles, is also disheartened by Raven?s inability to see the hollow nature of his lucrative blackjack calling. The book insightfully creates a dramatic tension between characters -- father/son, friend/friend, casino/counter, lover/beloved -- and among partners in the business of blackjack. However, the moral struggle within the character of Raven himself is at the core of the book.
The title itself can have various meanings. The ?counter? with the small ?c? is Raven, and what he counts are cards and money and, as the book revs up, his mistakes. But the ?Counter? with a capital ?C? can also stand for the Creator, God, or the Great Spirit of Raven?s part-Indian heritage, who counts our ways and numbers our days. Raven is indeed on a quest for knowledge and, despite his fundamentalist leanings, he experiments with a ?vision quest? (ala Carlos Castenada who wrote The Teachings of Don Juan), participates in an archeological dig in the holy land, and examines his conscience throughout.
The book?s climax is both tense and exhilarating. It ends...well, that?s for you to find out.
While there is some intermittent and occasionally awkward dialogue, along with some corny witticisms here and there, on the whole and in its parts, Blackwood?s literary style is smooth, consistently straightforward and admirably concrete. This is a novel I can recommend to anyone interested in a good read. Congratulations, Mr. Blackwood, on a job well done.
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