The Magazine

One of a Kind

Haunted lives and lucky hands at the poker table.

Jun 25, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 39 • By TED GIOIA
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by Michael Ondaatje

Knopf, 288 pp., $25

Michael Ondaatje has earned a reputation as a major novelist based on a small body of work--five short or medium-sized books published over a period of more than 30 years. One could squeeze all of these novels into a single volume and they would take up less space than, say, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy or David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. In an age of loquacious writers, where words are flogged and blogged in mass production style, Ondaatje stands as the odd man out, a craftsman who favors concision and taut poetic expression.

Now seven years after his last novel, Anil's Ghost (2000), Ondaatje offers us Divisadero, a story of broken families and fractured lives in California, Nevada, and France. Here the reader encounters all the trademarks of Ondaatje's fiction: the jazzy rhythms of his prose, fragmented narratives that seem to echo the cracks in his characters' psyches, and a delicate probing into enigmatic personas defined by shameful secrets and sudden moments of violence. Ever since he launched his writing career with books built around the historical figures of Billy the Kid and Buddy Bolden, Ondaatje has erected his narratives around protagonists who are desperately in need of a 12-step program if not a prison sentence.

Ondaatje's most successful exploration of the complexity of such self-destructive lives came in his celebrated 1992 novel, The English Patient. The book earned him a Booker Prize, and the resulting movie won nine Academy Awards, including the top honor for Best Picture of 1996. Although the film added a double dose of Hollywood romance to the plot line, it successfully (and daringly) remained true to the disjointed chronology of Ondaatje's narrative, in which flashbacks and recollections constantly interrupt the current action, and the audience is left to pull the story's individual components together like so many puzzle pieces scattered on the floor.

Divisadero is much the same. The narrative does not develop so much as break apart. The novel introduces Anna in its opening pages, a young girl living in Petaluma, California, who is raised alongside two orphans, Claire and Coop, brought into the home by her father after the death of his wife. This makeshift family erupts in violence after the father discovers an affair between Anna and Coop. He attempts to murder Coop, and Anna responds by savagely attacking and wounding her father.

The narrative now shifts its focus to the adult Coop, who has become a card shark and professional poker player. Poker, it seems, is the new subject of choice for novelists trying to emphasize the alienation of their protagonists. Just a few weeks ago Don DeLillo published his latest novel Falling Man, in which a survivor of the World Trade Center attack recovers from this experience by an intense submersion in Texas hold 'em. Cristina Garcia has also featured poker prominently in her latest novel, A Handbook to Luck, in which a math whiz turns to the game to support his father.

I am happy to report that poker works even better on the page than on ESPN. As a game built on bluffing and posturing, it almost requires a probing psychological novel to do justice to its subtleties. Perhaps the next Henry James will learn his craft at the Las Vegas card tables rather than waste his time on those European jaunts. In any event, Ondaatje rises to the challenge. Some of the most engaging pages in Divisadero deal with Coop's exploits in scamming a gang of hoodlums with bottom deals and phony shuffles.

Coop decides to take on the Brethren, a gang of born-again card sharks working Tahoe and Vegas casinos. The Brethren are colorful scammers: They even form a prayer circle before sitting down at the poker table to cheat their unsuspecting victims. Coop trains for months before taking on his adversaries in a high-stakes game that Ondaatje describes artfully, card by card, wager by wager. Coop captures the pot, a $300,000 triumph, but sets off a chain of ugly events by this win that he can neither predict nor control.