Review by Mike Dennis 2010
“This is it, fellow,” the motorman said impatiently. “End of the line.”
That’s the opening of William Krasner’s The Gambler (1950), a gritty noir novel of one man coming face to face with his own limitations. That man is Ben Wulfson, who, unlike most noir protagonists, starts at the end of the line and pretty much stays there.
He’s just returned to town from an eight-year absence, which is never fully explained. He makes his way to commission row, which looks like an area straight out of David Goodis’ black vision of Philadelphia. It’s full of sooty buildings and merciless streets and people with few options, but right away, Ben feels at home.
He wants to get back into the swing of the gambling world, which he knows well, so he hooks up with Tim Coogan, a pasty-faced young man who worked with him years earlier. Together they set up a dice game.
Now, if you run a dice game legitimately, you’re going to make money in the long run because the odds are immutably in your favor. Problem is, Ben doesn’t want to wait for the long run. He wants to make a pile of dough fast, then get out of town for good. So he introduces doctored dice into his game.
The game cruises along, Ben and Tim make some pretty good money, and then Ben meets Alice, a girl wandering aimlessly in the park, clutching a crust of bread. She’s wet, cold, and very sick. Out of sympathy, he takes her back to his fleabag hotel room to dry her out and warm her up. They develop a strange, distant relationship, but each of them welcomes it in his/her own way.
Problems arise when Ben’s loaded dice are discovered. Then the local gambling kingpin decides Ben’s game is disrupting the natural order of things. Meanwhile, his own troubled family issues reverberate throughout the book. The cops, the gangsters, the gamblers, Ben’s family…they’re all out to get Ben in one way or another, as each scene narrows his window of opportunity to escape.
Krasner paints a desolate picture of people on the other side of town, where no one ever goes. The scenes are described in great detail, maybe too much so in spots, but all in the language of true noir. Even the scenes that take place under the daytime sun feel dark and hopeless. Under his hand, light is co-opted by shadow as easily as ambition is extinguished by reality.
The author of only eight novels, Krasner spent most of his career writing scientific essays for journals and magazines, as well as a lot of TV and radio scripts. Don’t let that fool you, though. The Gambler is a bitter, uncompromising tale, very well told.