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Tom Chaney. R762 review: The Queen's Gambit, by Walter Tevis

Of Writers and Their Books No. R762: First appeared 13 May 2007 in the Hart County Herald. A review of the book: The Queen's Gambit by Kentucky author Walter Tevis. The complete poem, "Like a long-legged fly," by William Butler Yeats follows this Tom Chaney Review.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column : Tom Chaney. R761 review: The Gospel of Judas

By Tom Chaney

Like a long-legged fly....

I was fixin' to get in a long and serious day of work this past Sunday. Filing from 1993 needs to be caught up. Taxes from about 1923 cry out for payment. I had thought of a Sunday morning nap.

Walter May, known to many folks in these parts as an actor and playwright masquerading as a notorious Lexington attorney, has written a play which was presented a couple of weeks back at the annual Kentucky Voices readings of new plays.

I had been of some assistance to him in that matter -- chiefly providing endless cups of coffee during the spring workshops and pushing readers about on stage Saturday afternoon.

As a thank-you gift he sent me a book which gobsmacked me completely.

Sunday morning at eight I picked it up. I read straight through until about two in the afternoon when I noticed the local fire department attempting to demolish Clarence Owens' brickwork across the tracks at the hotel with a fire hose.

It has been years since I have been so snubbed up to the reading post by any book. Usually I can at least stop to eat. Not this time.

The book by Kentucky author Walter Tevis is The Queen's Gambit [Random House, 1983] recently reissued in a Vintage paperback edition.

Three of Tevis's books have been made into fine movies -- The Hustler and The Color of Money both starred Paul Newman. The third was The Man Who Fell to Earth.

But the book which drew me in, deals with a subject of which I know just enough to be dangerous. The title refers to a classic opening in a chess match. Eight-year-old Beth Harmon is a Lexington orphan sent to The Methuen Home in Mount Sterling upon the death of her parents in a car crash.

All of the girls in the orphanage are given tranquilizers twice a day "to even their dispositions." Her only friend and confidant is a black girl, Jolene.

Beth is a quiet, brilliant student. As a reward for excellence she gets to clean the erasers after arithmetic class. For that task she goes to the furnace room where the custodian, Mr. Shaibel, plays chess. She overcomes his reluctance and persuades him to teach her the game.

Soon she is able to visualize complicated games in her head. Before long she is far beyond Shaibel.

The custodian introduces her to Mr. Ganz, sponsor of the chess club at the high school. Astounded by her play, he asks her to attend a meeting of the club where she simultaneously plays and defeats the twelve young men who are members.

By the age of sixteen she has been adopted and competes for the U. S. Open Championship. Like Fast Eddie Felson of The Hustler, she hates to lose.

During her rise she relies heavily on the tranquilizers and alcohol as her isolation becomes more frightening.

By eighteen she is the U.S. Champion. Then she goes to Russia to face the Russians.

Tevis's description of the game of chess is as complex and engaging as is his description of pool in The Hustler.

But The Queen's Gambit, like the earlier novel, is not just about a complicated game. If that were so, I would not have been so enthralled. Beth's story is a supurb novel of psychological suspense.

My knowledge of the game is limited to being aware of how each piece may move across the board. I cannot see one move ahead to say nothing of an entire game. But Tevis transcends the novice reader's ignorance to create an enthralling world. "This book might not have worked if it weren't for the sensitive, moving, and emotionally honest way Tevis treats Beth Harmon," according to one critic. Indeed, the book works.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence
--W. B. Yeats, "Long-Legged Fly" from the epigraph.
Tevis gave us only six novels before his death in 1984.

Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney
Robert Stone, who edited this column, thought readers might be interested in the complete William Butler Yeats poem:Long-Legged Fly
by William Butler Yeats
That civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on the street.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope's chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

This story was posted on 2012-05-13 04:11:25
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