I've travelled through most parts of the world, eaten in some of its greatest restaurants and cooked in some decidedly terrible ones, with many, many stops in between. I've worked with geniuses, scoundrels and scumbags, and have said it before, but it bears repeating: I've seen some shit.

Though success is always nice to witness, and even nicer to achieve, I'm also fascinated and gratified by stories of big falls into gloriously wrenching failure and defeat. Such is the story of Bruno Alexander, the protagonist of Jonathan Lethem's A Gambler's Anatomy.

When we first encounter Bruno Alexander, he's a handsome, vain, highly-intelligent hustler at the top of his game, which is backgammon. He's won vast sums of cash by beating some of the world's richest men, in casinos and gentlemen's clubs and private drawing rooms where drinks are served by silent women in fetish gear. Bruno also happens to have telepathic powers, a stroke of literary magical thinking that Lethem uses to subtle, ultimately brilliant effect.


But then, as Yeats and Achebe and countless others have observed, things fall apart. Bruno loses in Singapore; he loses in Berlin. He discovers a tumor behind his eyes. Broke and broken, he returns to Berkeley, California, his now-unrecognizable hometown, to undergo experimental neurosurgery requiring the removal and destruction of his attractive face in order to save his life. Footing the bill is Bruno's boyhood friend Keith, a sniveling and jealous embodiment of schadenfreude who is only too happy to use his wealth in insidious ways. Having started his journey as a teenaged waiter at Chez Panisse, Bruno finds himself, many decades and thousands of miles later, flipping burgers back home and trying to rebuild his life.

What becomes of a middle-aged man who appears to have lost it all? In Lethem's hands, Bruno's trajectory is wrenching, hilarious, and oddly familiar, a wholly entertaining tragicomedy by a master of his craft.