- Publié sur Amazon.com
Any novel that bills itself as a "divine comedy" has some heavy lifting ahead of it. Everytime you open a book, you know that millions of books, some of them masterpieces, have preceded it. It's the author's job to come up with something that justifies you sacrificing some of your time to read their work. Sometimes, it's hard to get out of the shadow of established great works. So if you do it in the title, you've got to bring it. It's analagous to Babe Ruth calling his shot. You can do it, sure, but you'd better hit the ball pretty far.
Continuing the baseball metaphor, Richard Armstrong, in his first novel, hits one out of the park. Reading God Doesn't Shoot Craps during a cross-country plane ride, I was continually delighted by both the story itself and the little things that made it even better. It's a smart, funny story with memorable, realistic characters that doesn't insult the reader's intelligence. Ironic, perhaps, given that both the protagonist, Danny Pellegrino, and the author are direct mail mavens. Even the book's website has a pitch for a "free" series of "gaming guides." Is it really a scam-like solicitation, or a brilliant satire of one? I'm not sure.
The book is the story of Dante Alighieri "Danny" Pellegrino, a direct mail scam artist, who earns his bread from peddling holy water, chunks of the Blarney Stone, and "can't miss" gambling systems, staying barely ahead of Richard Goldman, a criminal investigator for the US Postal Service who would like nothing better than to catch Pellegrino in an out-and-out fraud. Pellegrino's life changes when he decides to test a system forwarded to him by one Virgil Kirk (are you seeing a pattern here). The system, based on the theories of Spanish physicist Juan Parrando (and therefore called "Parrando's Paradox") posits that, when properly combined, two losing games can yield a winning strategy.
This is, of course, the Holy Grail to any "serious" gambler, who knows that, in the end, the odds favor the house. I'm not going to pretend to understand the theory behind the paradox, or the Brownian ratchets that play a mysterious (for me) but nonetheless integral role. Pellegrino initially plans to send out a direct mail blast and make a tidy profit from selling yet another doomed "can't lose" system. But while testing the system (not to see if it works, but merely to better appreciate its failings), Pellegrino discovers that it actually works. From there, the story really takes off, as something as mundane as a craps betting system (there are at least hundreds of them out there) becomes the Maguffin that speeds the plot along.
Armstrong knows how to create and maintain suspense, which keeps the reader not only in appreciation of the outstanding characters that populate the book, but eagerly anticipating the next twist, and the final resolution.
The characters really are a strong point. You probably know "that guy" who won't stop quoting the Godfather movies (and their ilk). Now imagine "that guy" as a real underworld kingpin, who speaks--and, more worringly, thinks--only in lines from mob movies and TV shows. You'll find him, as the appropriately-named Frankie Pentangeli, in God Doesn't Shoot Craps. The names, by the way, are almost always deeply symbolic. It's hard not to enjoy a casino host named after one of the seven deadly sins.
But the direct mail scam/gambling/mob axis is only part of the story. Armstrong uses the idea of a winning losing system, and his protagonist's growing discovery of his faith in the unknown, to talk about spirituality, making this, if not a divine, definitely a metaphysical comedy. Many books about gambling are about as deep as the felt on a craps table--they simply rush the reader through a Manichean, two dimensional world of winners and losers. Moral, much less spiritual ambiguity is nowhere to be found.
Armstrong, though, not only gets to expound on a few spiritual themes that are undoubtedly close to his heart (or, perhaps, just another scam? Pellegrino's first "campaign" cynically plays off religious faith to bilk the credulous), but scores a (Philip K.) Dickian plot twist that leaves the reader wondering just what reality is. A fitting end for a book that parses both Dante and Einstein, and takes its readers from the White House (the Atlantic City sub shop, not the President's house) to the frontiers of quantam mechanics.
Partially set in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, and spending a great deal of time in casinos, the novel does a better job than most of capturing the reality of the industry and its environs. I have one quibble--in my experience in casino surveillance, I never knew a casino host to enter the surveillance room, as one does here. That aside, the book rings almost entirely true as a realistic story taking place in casinos.
I highly recommend God Doesn't Shoot Craps to anyone who lives in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, works in the casino industry, or likes to gamble, and has read a book before. Unfortunately, it won't be an entirely unexpected pleasure (as it was for me), but I'd bet that the book will be one of the most memorable you've read in a while. And I don't need to parlay that with a horn bet to know that one's a winner.