Tuesday, May 06, 2014

the last book I read

The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis.

Elizabeth Harmon is just eight years old when both her parents are messily killed in a car crash and she becomes an orphan and, as orphans do, gets packed off to an orphanage in Kentucky. This place likes to keep its potentially trouble-making youngsters nice and placid and compliant, and achieves this with some questionable drug-dispensing practices, basically involving keeping the kids dosed up with enough downers to pacify a rhinoceros.

So far, so One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, you might say, and, well, perhaps. But Beth's escape comes not from getting lobotomised and then asphyxiated by a seven-foot Native American, still less from hurling a stone washstand through a window and then jogging off into the night. No, Beth discovers that she has a freakish aptitude for chess after a chance encounter with the school janitor, Mr. Shaibel, while running a menial errand for a teacher. Mr. Shaibel is a keen player and grudgingly agrees to show her the rules. Needless to say she is soon running rings round him, and soon becomes something of a local curiosity, being periodically wheeled out to perform exhibitions against local school teams, whom she slaughters mercilessly despite playing twenty of them at the same time.

It's only when Beth is adopted by odd couple Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley that her chess career really takes off. Once Mr. Wheatley has disappeared on an endless "business trip" that it soon becomes clear he isn't coming back from, Beth decides to enter a local chess competition (having "borrowed" the entry fee) and wins. Mrs. Wheatley, previously a bit dismissive of Beth's chess obsession, now starts to sit up and take notice, and the two of them develop a nice little routine - Mrs. Wheatley organises the travel to chess tournaments, arranges the hotel and various other administrative stuff and then spends the rest of the time mooching round the hotel getting discreetly sloshed, and Beth takes care of the chess - the prize money from the tournaments pays all the bills.

The only downside of this arrangement is that Mrs. Wheatley has a bit of a tranquiliser habit, not to mention a bit of a booze habit, and some of these habits start to rub off on Beth, who was already a pretty regular consumer of the little green pills that they used to give out at the orphanage. Mostly she can keep it under control, but when Mrs. Wheatley expires after a bout of hepatitis on a chess-playing trip to Mexico, Beth is left to look after herself, and soon embarks on a gruelling dawn-to-dusk schedule of wine and gin consumption that leaves her fearful of having fried the precious brain cells that are the source of her freakish aptitude for chess.

Beth decides to invoke some help from her former dorm-mate at the orphanage, Jolene, the sort of sassy, no-nonsense black sidekick we're all familiar with from the movies. Soon enough Jolene has Beth eating properly, heading down the gym and, most importantly, cutting out the pints of white wine for breakfast. Beth's chess is soon restored to its former potency, and after a hard-fought win in the US championships she enters a couple of international tournaments, where she will inevitably come face-to-face with the Russians, and their intimidating world champion, Borgov.

Chess isn't an obvious subject for a novel, and it's a testament to Tevis's skill that the descriptions of chess games that occupy a fair chunk of the narrative of the novel are as exciting as they are. I used to play occasionally, so I know the basic rules (though I never played enough to be any good), and I recall a bit of the hoopla around the hilariously paranoid antics at the Karpov-Korchnoi world championship showdown in 1978, and the brief flurry of prime-time British TV chess coverage during the Kasparov-Short championship match in 1993. So I do have a bit of an interest, which raises the question of how interesting the novel would be to someone completely unfamiliar with the game. I suppose if you ignore the title and the picture on the front you've only got yourself to blame.

Anyway, Beth Harmon is an interesting, though not especially sympathetic character - we're presumably meant to draw some conclusions about the parallels between the sort of personality that is well-suited to endless poring over chess theory and the sort of personality that can't stop itself shovelling in the gin and pills. Harmon's being a woman is also interesting; at the time of the novel's publication (1983) no woman had ever made any serious impact at the highest level of chess, although seven-year-old Judit Polg├ír had no doubt already played her first games. There are some elements of heavily-disguised autobiography here as well  - Beth's early promise, brief going off the rails and triumphant return echoing Tevis's own early successes with The Hustler and The Man Who Fell To Earth (both famously filmed), a couple of decades of alcoholism and then a late flurry of novels (including this one) before his death in 1984.

I'd say this is as much of a little forgotten gem of late-20th century American fiction as Stoner, even though it's less self-consciously literary. A couple of further coincidental parallels: the action in The Queen's Gambit starts just as Stoner's ends, in the mid-1950s, and both books have forewords by other authors who feature in this list - John McGahern there, Lionel Shriver here.

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