by Louis Sachar
Reviewed by Chris Bolton
Louis Sachar's The Cardturner is a novel about playing bridge. WAKE UP! You couldn't have fallen asleep that fast, faker.
It's true, bridge isn't as fast, enticing, or sexy as poker -- or even cribbage. And I will admit that, having read all 336 pages of the book, I still can't tell you how to play bridge. It's a testament to Sachar's storytelling gifts that understanding the game isn't required to enjoy the book, and that he somehow manages to make bridge (as confusing as it remains to me) interesting.
The narrator is Alton Richards, who's spending the summer after junior year in a funk, jobless and heartbroken over his ex-girlfriend, who's now dating his best friend. Then his "favorite uncle" (actually, his great-uncle) offers Alton a job. Lester is a fanatical bridge player in failing health who recently lost his eyesight, and he needs Alton to read him his cards when he plays.
The job comes with a warning: the previous cardturner asked Uncle Lester, "Are you sure?" before laying down his card. She was promptly fired.
Alton doesn't exactly jump at this opportunity, but his parents force him into it. Uncle Lester is very, very rich, and everyone in the family wants a piece of his postmortem pie. Alton's parents figure he can use his cardturning time to butter up the emotionally remote, sometimes downright unfriendly, Lester before his health finishes failing.
True to form, Sachar makes all of this work beautifully. Readers of Holes will recall the author's propensity for family drama and duplicity, with poor Stanley Yelnats suffering under the curse of his "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather." In general, the worse his characters behave, the brighter Sachar shines.
As with Holes, The Cardturner is sharp and funny, populated with a memorable cast of characters. The story is also informed by dark shades of past wrongdoings, which Sachar balances very effectively with the lighter tones of both books. If the new book isn't quite the equal of Holes... well, what is? The comparison is inherently unfair -- and doesn't diminish the strengths of the new novel in the slightest.
Sachar skillfully works his way around an inherent pitfall of his story: almost nobody under the age of 50 plays bridge anymore. It's a dying game, a fact that Sachar (an avid player) seems to want to remedy. That's an iffy proposition; bridge is an extremely involved, ridiculously complicated game requiring at least four players, and is not easily explained in a paragraph or two (or even a chapter or two).
Sachar's solution is ingenious. Whenever Alton describes a complicated procedure in a bridge game, he uses a whale symbol -- a reference to Alton's desire to skip the parts of Moby-Dick in which Melville "stopped the story and went on page after page describing every tiny detail of a whaling ship." At the end of these whale sections, Alton adds a box containing a quick summary so readers who skip the descriptive section can catch up. I read all of the whale sections without fully grasping the rules of bridge -- certainly not well enough to play it -- yet I was never at a loss to understand the next movement in the story.
Reading Louis Sachar is pure pleasure for any age group. Much as I'm dazzled by his skill for keeping the story moving and filling it with distinct characters who live in the reader's memory after the book ends, there is perhaps no truer test of Sachar's gifts than the fact that a reader doesn't have to understand a single aspect of bridge to fall in love with The Cardturner.
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Chris Bolton co-created the all-ages webcomic Smash, about a ten-year-old superhero, and created the web-series Wage Slaves, the second season of which premieres in summer 2010. His short story set in Powell's City of Books, "The Red Room," was published in Portland Noir from Akashic Books.