Simon Baker

The gambler’s daily grind

A review of The Ballad of a Small Player, by Lawrence Osborne. An insight into a gambler’s life of soulless grind

The gambler’s daily grind
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The Ballad of a Small Player

Lawrence Osborne

Hogarth, pp. 257, £

Lord Doyle is a shrivelled English gambler frittering away his money and destroying his liver in the casinos of Macau. Aptly, since he is in a place filled with mock-Venetian canals and poor reproduction paintings, he himself is a fake: the man is not a real lord, and the money is not his own. He is a disgraced solicitor of modest origin, who ran off with a client’s savings after befriending her.

Lawrence Osborne’s novel is a bleak and enjoyable account of someone who, perhaps through unacknowledged guilt, finds bitter solace in losing and in driving himself towards extinction. Narrated in an urbane, knowing, faintly old-fashioned tone, the story moves from one garish setting to the next, with the deliberately repetitive scenery building a plausibly awful picture of the gambler’s life of soulless grind. In this world, the narrator’s instinctive amorality is given room to blossom, as all addictions do, into a kind of animal unthinkingness, and he simply blunders from one crass act to the next, unburdened by anything but the need for a fix.

It’s not a full character study — Doyle never really emerges as a person — but it is an unsparingly detailed examination of specific character traits and the life of numbed compulsiveness that they can engender. The man’s falls are predictable, but consider the words of the gambling legend Stu Ungar who, when asked what he would do with the astronomical fortune he won at the 1981 world series of poker, replied simply: ‘Lose it’.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £10.99, Tel: 08430 600033