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30 April 2015

Walter Tevis: The Hustler

The need to win is everywhere in life
The late Walter Tevis was a fantastic storyteller, especially when the story involves someone who has an inbuilt need to win. This time the tale is about 'Fast Eddie' Felsen, a young pool hustler, who had an ambition to beat the best pool players in the country.

After making his seed money in small Pool Halls around the US, Eddie arrives in Chicago to find Minnesota Fats - the best there is. Travis describes Eddie's first pool battle with Fats almost on a stroke by stroke basis, building up the tension, the exhaustion and the emotional strengths of the two players.

This is also a coming of age story for Eddie as he meets shy Sarah, slowly falls in love but doesn't have the emotional strength to understand what is happening. Travis also shows that Eddie can't make it to the top without support from others and how Eddie doesn't realise that he needs that support to  achieve his dreams.

You don't need to be a pool player to understand what is happening as Travis is a master in describing complex things in simple and understandable language. While his prose is straightforward he is able to put you into the middle of an action-filled and evocative arena. His games become battle scenes as bloody and compelling as scenes on a real battlefield.

I first encountered Tevis's work in THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT where the battle scenes were on the chess board (and you didn't need to know how to play chess to appreciate the action). Tevis followed up THE HUSTLER  with THE COLOR OF MONEY where we meet Eddie later in life still wanting to follow the ambitions of his youth. I look forward to reading that book soon.

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