There were few places on the ship less conducive to reading than the library. In the summer of 2000, in my early twenties, I was stationed aboard an aircraft carrier. The library sat directly beneath the flight deck, which means that in addition to the thump, rattle, and screech of the planes as they landed, there was the heat from the catapults and their fuel, a heat so thick it invaded your respiration like some perniciously odorless fume, trespassing on your psyche and then inhabiting it. Reading there was out of the question, but we weren’t on the ship to read. Which is why it always surprised me how many great books they had in that library.
I found one of the greatest purely by chance. I knew neither the book, Memoir of a Gambler, nor its author, Jack Richardson. It was the title that hooked me. Our ship would soon be returning to San Diego, after a six-month cruise throughout the Pacific Ocean and Arabian Sea, and so I knew I would soon be gambling again. Having already become a devotee of the sports-gambling culture of San Diego—or, more specifically, its adjunct playground of Tijuana—I needed little encouragement. But in the book I now held in my hands, I would find plenty of encouragement anyway.
On the cover, this Jack Richardson struck a classically arch pose, arms crossed in a subdued brown sport coat and vest, staring self-importantly into the camera; beside him, on a circular bar-table sat a gleaming, thickly cut glass ashtray, a lone cigarillo perched on its edge. The back cover featured a blurb from William Styron (a notoriously selective blurber, even on behalf of friends), proclaiming, “Jack Richardson is a wonderful writer and his book is a powerful portrayal of one man’s obsession—sad, hilarious, erotic, and, above all, pitilessly honest. I readMemoir of a Gambler with fascination and delight.” The bio inside the back flap revealed that the author was a distinguished playwright who had also written for many of the magazines I cherished most, and then, on the copyright page, a partial explanation for why I did not recognize him from any of those magazines: “Copyright ©1979.”