For one whole year he did nothing but drive, traveling back and forth across America as he waited for the money to run out.
The Music of Chance was originally published in 1990 and it is one of my favourite books by Auster. I had intended to read 4 3 2 1 for Annabookbel’s Paul Auster Reading Week but I didn’t plan ahead, so I thought I’d re-read an old favourite instead.
Paul Auster usually starts his books with a great opening sentence, and The Music of Chance is no different—see quote at top of page. Over the next few pages we discover that Jim Nashe had inherited two hundred thousand dollars from his father, whom he hadn’t seen for over thirty years. This inheritance arrived at a pivotal time in Nashe’s life as his wife, Thérèse, had recently left him and his daughter was now living with his sister. After paying off some debts, he bought a new car and went on the road for two weeks, driving for seven straight hours each day and staying in motels at night.
Every morning he would go to sleep telling himself that he had had enough, that there would be no more of it, and every afternoon he would wake up with the same desire, the same irresistible urge to crawl back into the car. He wanted that solitude again, that nightlong rush through the emptiness, that rumbling of the road along his skin.
He returned to work but soon decided to leave his job, sell all his possessions and go on the road for good. He had no plans but he thought he’d soon get bored with it, only he didn’t, instead he criss-crossed the country, occasionally dropping in to see his daughter, Juliette.
The thought of just disappearing, or running away, from one’s current life must occur to everyone at some point in their life. But, if we had the money to do so, would we act on it? Most, likely not, but the characters in Auster’s books often do act on these impulses and it is what makes them compelling to read.
Then, after just over a year on the road, he meets Jack Pozzi, a twenty-three year old poker player, and this chance encounter knocks his life into another lane. Nashe meets Pozzi hitchhiking, his clothes are all bloody and he looks dazed; it turns out that he’d just escaped from a beating after a poker game turned violent after he was suspected of hustling them. He was trying to raise some money for another poker game with a couple of millionaires, whom he likens to Laurel and Hardy, in just a few days’ time. Nashe gets to know Pozzi, and although he’s brash and cocky, Nashe realises he is a good poker player and makes the proposal to fund Pozzi ten thousand dollars for a fifty-fifty split of the winnings. This is nearly the last of his funds.
Bill Flower and Willie Stone are a strange couple; they won their money on the lottery a few years earlier and now live in the same mansion albeit in separate wings. Stone’s wife had died, whilst Flower’s wife had left him, neither had re-married. They both enjoy playing poker but have other interests, which become significant later on in the novel; Stone is building a scale-model of a city, called ‘The City of the World’, which he intends to spend the rest of his life working on, whilst Flower collects all sorts of objects, especially the stones of a fifteenth-century castle from Ireland which he’d bought, dismantled and shipped to America. The intention is to build a wall with the stones.
Now, halfway through this novel they begin their game of poker. Pozzi is confident as he had beaten Flower and Stone a few years ago. The two millionaires, however, have been coached by a well-known poker player and are confident also.
Things don’t go as well as expected for Nashe and Pozzi and they have to pay off their debt to the millionaires. If you are intending to read this book it may be a good idea to stop reading here as I’m going to reveal some details about the end of the book.
When I first read The Music of Chance many years ago I found it an amazing book, very nearly perfect, except for the ending. I expected that Nashe would never pay off his debt and he’d end up performing a Sisyphean task; if not building, dismantling, rebuilding the wall, then something similar, another task maybe; but Auster just cut the story off with a suicidal car crash. I remember feeling a bit ‘cheated’ by the ending, but now, after a second reading, I’m not so sure, and I think maybe Auster was right in ending it the way he did. Nashe’s year-long driving spree could be seen as a long slow suicide attempt; maybe suicide was an unconscious goal all along and now that he gets control of his car once again he can finish the job.
Pozzi had been beaten up, possibly killed, after trying to escape and Nashe may have felt that he also had no way out of the contract. But he kills himself, as well as Murks and Floyd, just when he is celebrating being clear of his debt. Does Nashe believe, like Pozzi did, that he isn’t really going to escape from his debt, or is it the freedom that he finds unendurable? I must admit that I like this violent, destructive ending more than I did before.
A film was made of the book in 1993 which was directed by Philip Haas and starred James Spader, as well as a cameo by Paul Auster. I have seen the film and have a feeling that the ending was changed. I shall have to watch it again as I remember really liking it.