Keith Dixon’s The Art of Losing is a distinctly deceptive little novel. The place you find yourself on the last page is very different from where you think you’re headed on the first.
Filmmaker Mike Jacobs’ third documentary has just flopped. Sort of. Everybody who sees it seems to like it. But it’s not going to get picked up for distribution. And it isn’t going to make any money.
“I have this thing about money,” Mike tells us. “Somehow I’ve always equated success with wealth. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.”
Mike’s father, “a self-made man who started out selling shoe polish door-to-door and ended up with a company of his own, a four-car garage, and an in-ground pool,” has plenty of dough and is quite willing to lay it on Mike.
But Mike, of course, wants to make it on his own. Well, not quite on his own. Sebby Laslo, Mike’s producer — the two have ended up in New York after failing in L.A. — has a plan for making a killing at the track. Only they first have to establish themselves as losers. Otherwise the bookies will get suspicious. And suspicious bookies can get nasty.
Mike’s job is to get the line of credit they’ll need to place the bets. Mike’s credit rating with banks may have long since tanked, but the bookies don’t know him from Adam. Sebby, on the other hand, doesn’t always manage to keep one step ahead of the guys collecting on the bets — which is why, one day, someone helps him get his hand caught in a car door.
So Mike comes to Philly and meets with a bookie named Popoloskouras, who has a restaurant in Old City. Popoloskouras advises Mike to “have yourself a dinner here, on me. It is my way of buying off all the misery you are causing me … when the degenerate gambler you are betting for finds his bad luck has caught up with him.”
Next Mike visits bookie Lad Keegan at Keegan’s restaurant in Cape May. Keegan asks him “if this is what you really want to do. Because once you start laying bets, you’re in, and the only way to get back out is to settle the book. The book’s always going to be settled, one way or another.”
Mike says he understands and Keegan gives him a five thousand line.
Keegan’s goon Clive, sitting at a nearby table, is a little more to the point: “I can already tell you how it’s going to end. It’s going to end with you off in the woods somewhere asking me how this happened.”
Sebby’s plan involves fixing a race. He’s got his jockey lined up, and that jockey lines up another, because the fix won’t come off, he says, if he doesn’t have another jockey in on it. So now there are four involved, lots of losing bets have come due, and things, as is their wont, don’t go as planned when the race is run. It’s then that you realize, Mike’s breezy narration notwithstanding, that this is no light-hearted caper chronicle at all, but a moral fable with deep-tolling resonance.
For Mike has been practicing the art of losing for most of his life. “I’ll take lost over alone any day,” he tells us. Only in Mike’s case there really isn’t much difference between the two. The bookies aren’t the only people he doesn’t listen to. He doesn’t listen to anybody — not his parents, not Jay Lesch, his sometime financial backer, not his friend Father DiBenedetto.
Which is too bad because Father DiBenedetto clues him in on something important, namely, that God is only “half the solution to every problem. It’s up to the conscience to cut out whatever’s left.”
There is a genuine — and genuinely subtle — religious theme running through this novel, which chronicles what happens to the self when neglect of conscience becomes habitual.
Mike says he likes film because “it’s better than real life: rewindable, erasable, redoable.”
The only solution for real life’s bad footage is repentance. Getting that across is what gives The Art of Losing more heft than a lot of novels twice its size.