Men’s Books #1: Walter Tevis, The Color of Money

Don’t be deceived because you’ve seen the Tom Cruise movie. From Walter Tevis’ official website: The Color of Money was first published by Warner Books. Copyright 1984 by Walter Tevis, Inc. The Touchstone Pictures film directed by Martin Scorsese was released in 1987. The screenplay by Richard Price bears no resemblance to the novel.

Within a year he’d be dead.

He taught writing at Ohio University for a while, drank and smoked and didn’t write a word for fifteen years. He’d been a phenom, publishing The Hustler when he was 31 and working as a technical writer for the Kentucky Highway Department, The Man Who Fell to Earth four years after that, but got comfortable and lazy and forgot what he was for. 

He tore himself away from academic life, put himself into a New York apartment, and wrote Mockingbird in 1980, The Queen’s Gambit in 1983, and this book, The Color of Money in his final year, 1984, which feels to me like the most autobiographical fiction ever written. 

He had lived a life without drama for twenty years, remembering from time to time the games of straight pool he had played as a young hustler…[41]

This book, about Eddie Felson rediscovering who he is, is about Walter Tevis rediscovering himself as well. He had lived a life without drama for twenty years, but shook himself loose for four final years of brilliant return to his storytelling core, for which we can all be grateful. It’s a message to us all: do the thing you’re made to do. Here, at length, is Tevis’ anthem to honest work in a dishonest world:

People thought that pool hustling was corrupt and sleazy, worse than boxing. But to win at pool, to be a professional at it, you had to deliver. In a business you could pretend that skill and determination had brought you along when it had only been luck and muddle; a pool hustler did not have the freedom to believe that. There were well-paid incompetents everywhere living rich lives. They arrogated to themselves the plush hotel sites and Lear jets and American provided for the guileful and lucky far more than it did for the wise. You could fake and bluff and luck your way into all of it… The world and all its enterprises could slide downhill through stupidity and bad faith, but the long gray limousines would still hum through the streets of New York, of Paris, of Moscow, of Tokyo, though the men who sat against the soft leather in back with their glasses of twelve-year-old Scotch might be incapable of anything more than looking important, of wearing the clothes and the haircuts and the gestures that the world, whether it liked to or not, paid for and always had paid for. Eddie would lie in bed sometimes at night and think these things in anger, knowing that beneath the anger envy lay like a swamp. A pool hustler had to do what he claimed to be able to do. The risks he took were not underwritten. His skill on the arena of green cloth—cloth that was itself the color of money—could never be only pretense. Pool players were often cheats and liars, petty men whose lives were filled with pretensions, who ran out on their women and walked away from their debts; but on the table, with the lights overhead beneath the cigarette smoke and the silent crowd around them in whatever dive of a billiard parlor at four in the morning, they had to find the wherewithal inside themselves to do more than promise excellence. Under whatever lies might fill the life, the excellence had to be there. It had to be delivered. It could not be faked. But Eddie did not make his living that way anymore. [186-88]

The excellence had to be delivered. It could not be faked. And for those first few years, and then again for the final few, Walter Tevis—fully, vividly alive—delivered it.

Don’t be misled, by my enthusiasm for this book, to imagine that you’ll encounter Eddie Felson as some sort of model of the new man, the guy who’s got contemporary masculinity all figured out for the rest of us. What you’ll see here instead is someone who knows that his old version isn’t going to cut it any more, and who’s stumbling in the dark to make a new way. When he’s at his worst, he’s trying to figure out an angle, to set up a game, to lay the odds and make some money. When he’s at his best is within those six rails, where he loses his sense of self altogether and just builds patterns upon patterns. Does he gamble because he’s competitive, because he loves to win, because the money can be good? Yes. But he also gambles because it’s the price of entry to those rooms in which his entire focus is demanded. Once he’s bought his way in, he can let all of that go and just have the balls tell him what they want him to do.

With his new girlfriend Arabella (another searching soul—Eddie’s drawn to squandered promise, like himself), he does things that can be seen as supportive, or that can be seen as overbearing. They’re probably both. She knows Appalachian folk art, and has left her crappy administrative job to work with Eddie to start a gallery. But although it’s wonderful, it’s not easy:

He felt suddenly uncomfortable. “What are you pissed about?”

“I don’t know.” She had just finished showing one of the less expensive quilts and it was laid out on the counter to display the pattern; she began folding it now. “I’m sorry if I was mean-spirited, Eddie,” she said, “but I’m beginning to feel as if I’m working for you. You make the decisions and take the responsibilities.”

He seated himself on the stand where the Statue of Unliberty had been. “You took us to Marcum and the others,” he said. “You’ve put up the money.”

“It’s not the same. I was the one who was supposed to know folk art, but you chose the pieces to buy. You’ve taken over.”

He understood her problem, but he was getting annoyed. “You don’t have to be a second-class citizen.”

She was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Maybe you’re right. You caught me off balance at first. I hadn’t expected you to move so fast.”

“I was making up for lost time.” He took a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it. “Still am.” [226]

This is the awkwardness of gender negotiations, both those between Arabella and Eddie, and those within each of them.

This is not Tevis’ best book—that would be The Queen’s Gambit—but it’s the book that’s clearest about the dilemmas that men have built for ourselves, and in its portrayal of one particular man’s search for something he’s never seen.

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