cover image The Ballad of a Small Player

The Ballad of a Small Player

Lawrence Osborne. Crown/Hogarth, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-0-8041-3797-3

The latest from author and journalist Osborne (The Forgiven) is a searing portrait of addiction and despair set in the glittering world of Macau’s casinos. “Lord Doyle,” as he’s known to the other gamblers, is an English lawyer who has embezzled from a client and fled to Asia. Doyle spends his days and nights playing baccarat, which he calls “a game of ecstasy and doom.” At the tables he drinks fine wine, handles his cards wearing kid gloves, and slowly but surely loses. Doyle’s descriptions of the tables, the players, and the game’s siren allure are by turns touching, acid, and depressing. A fellow gamer has eyes that reveal “worlds of private pain.” A particularly garish casino inspires Doyle to muse, “There is something in kitsch that reminds you there is more to being alive than being alive.” But Doyle’s jaundiced eye barely masks his monstrous compulsion; indeed, the novel’s energetic portrait of the highs and lows of a gambler’s fortunes are as good as anything in the literature of addiction. Just when it seems Doyle’s luck may have at last run out, he’s rescued by Dao-Ming, a beautiful prostitute, whose genuine concern for him seems to rouse Doyle from his dissipation and downward spiral. But the novel subverts an easy storybook ending and reveals something much bleaker. Osborne’s intriguing Chinese milieu and exquisite prose mark this work as a standout. [em](Apr.) [/em]