August 2003

Michael Schaub

fiction

The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis

The late Walter Tevis occupies a somewhat unusual literary plane. He wrote three novels that will always be known chiefly for their film adaptations--The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. So while Tevis created some of the most memorable characters in American cinema--T. J. Newton, Fast Eddie, Minnesota Fats--it's the actors and directors who routinely get the credit (or, in the case of The Color of Money, the blame). Tevis's novels were mostly well-received by critics, and 20 years after his death, almost all of them are still in print. For a long time, the notable exception was The Queen's Gambit, Tevis' 1983 novel about a child prodigy equally talented at chess and drug consumption. Luckily, Random House's Vintage Contemporaries has reissued the book, saving it from another few decades languishing in the memory hole.

The hero of The Queen's Gambit is Beth Harmon, a Kentucky girl whose parents were killed in a car crash when she was eight. Beth is shipped to an orphanage in another town, where she quickly becomes addicted to the tranquilizers the children are forced to take daily. She befriends Jolene, a tough-talking older orphan who initially tries to molest Beth. She learns chess from Mr. Shaibel, the taciturn janitor who plays by himself in the orphanage basement. This alone is probably enough for a novel, but it's just the first 40 pages of The Queen's Gambit. Beth's experiences at the orphanage merely pave the way for the story of her lightning-fast ascendancy to the top of the chess world.

Beth begins her professional career in earnest after she's adopted by Mrs. Wheatley, an emotionally distant alcoholic from Lexington. Beth rises to the top of the Kentucky chess scene -- that's right, Kentucky chess scene--and soon finds herself on a quest to be a grandmaster, which is hampered by the fact that she herself has become addicted to alcohol.

This book might not have worked if it weren't for the sensitive, moving and emotionally honest way Tevis treats Beth Harmon. She's a strikingly original character in a book with a slight tendency toward archetypes (the street-smart black orphan; the mysterious janitor; the troubled, middle-aged Southern belle). Beth is pensive, painfully shy, and unaccountably smart. The alienation of the intelligent was also a prominent theme in Tevis' The Man Who Fell to Earth, and like that novel's T. J. Newton, Beth is nearly brought down by drugs, alcohol and inadvisable sex. Tevis himself struggled with alcoholism and social alienation in the years before he wrote The Queen's Gambit; it was obviously a theme close to his heart. Not too many novels take on substance abuse and win; it's a notoriously hard thing to write about. Tevis succeeds admirably in this regard because he never loses sight of the humanity of the addict. Not many writers since have replicated this kind of sensitivity.

Then there's the chess. Much of the suspense in The Queen's Gambit comes from the tournaments Beth enters; the reader gets caught up in Beth's goal to be the best in the world. It's difficult to describe chess games to people who don't play, and it's even harder to keep their interest. Again, Tevis succeeds on the strength of his prose alone. Sentences like "He played pawn to king four, and she replied with the Sicilian" may mean nothing to you--they sure as hell mean nothing to me--but Tevis is a master of translating as he goes along, making sure no reader is left behind. It's a lot like what he did for billiards in The Hustler; the strength of the narrative carries the reader through what could otherwise be impenetrable descriptions of chess arcana.

William E. Ellis quotes Tevis describing himself as a "good American writer of the second rank." It's a harsh, though somewhat apt, description. Tevis was never as accomplished as Steinbeck or Nabokov, though his career suggests he never really wanted to be. He's not a grandmaster of American literature. He's simply a great storyteller, and The Queen's Gambit is simply a fascinating, immensely entertaining book. We're lucky to have it back in print.

The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis
Vintage Contemporaries
ISBN: 1400030609
243 Pages