Swamp Rabbit and I didn’t do Christmas 2014, we were too beat down by the solstice blues. We agreed to exchange gifts at New Year’s but didn’t get around to it until Sunday. I gave the rabbit two cans of black-eyed peas and he gave me a novel.
“I gotta eat these here peas to have good luck in 2015, right?” he said, clutching the cans. “It’s one of them New Year’s superstitions from down South.”
I told him I didn’t know anything about southern superstitions. “I got black-eyed peas because they were the only thing I could steal today at the SuperFridge. Security at that dump is getting pretty tight.”
He shrugged, probably because I’d already stolen from the liquor store in Tinicum the one item that makes him smile — his monthly supply of Wild Turkey. I don’t count the bourbon as a gift. It’s more like medicine.
The novel was The Ballad of a Small Player, by Lawrence Osborne, about a lawyer/gambling addict called Lord Doyle who has swindled a very large sum from a client in England and is slowly losing it at the baccarat tables in Macau, the former Portuguese colony in China that years ago surpassed Las Vegas as the casino gambling capital of the world. Macau is where the casino magnate and evil gnome Sheldon Adelson has made much of his ever-growing fortune.
I read the novel and caught up with the rabbit the next day in my shack as he was eating black-eyed peas from my frying pan. I told him Osborne’s examination of the gambler’s mindset is in the same league with Dostoevski’s. His suave, self-destructive Lord Doyle is as finely drawn a protagonist as any of Graham Greene’s. And Osborne rivals Hunter S. Thompson in his talent for describing opulent hellholes full of middle-class schmucks — Chinese, in this case — “losing their life savings with a smoldering fag in one hand, a plastic cup of punch in the other… Thirty years of miserable slog and labor tossed down the maw of the casino in seven minutes.”
“I ain’t surprised you like it, the book got good reviews,” the rabbit said. Then he asked me if it was better than Good Sal/Bad Sal, my unpublished novel set in casino-era Atlantic City.
“Osborne’s book is different,” I said, dodging the question. “It’s about the intersection of luck and fate. It’s about the thrill of riding a good-luck streak until it consumes you. Osborne is obsessed with the mystery of luck.”
“Luck is the residue of design.” the rabbit said. “Ain’t that what they say?”
I laughed. “Sounds pretty, but 99 percent of the people who swarm casinos don’t believe in design. They only believe in luck, even after they throw away all their money.”
The rabbit chewed his peas and said, “Shit, Odd Man, you gotta believe in somethin’. How else you gonna get through hard times?”
I considered quoting to him one of the existentialist philosophers — Camus, maybe — but I changed my mind. “I don’t believe in luck, or even in probability. But I do believe in food. Pass me those peas, rabbit.”