(Review for Bizarro Brigade.)
In his second novel PLAY DEAD, Michael A. Arnzen introduces us to Johnny Frieze, a down-on-his-luck gambler in Las Vegas. Licking his wounds, figuratively and literally, in a homeless shelter following the high-stakes poker game that ruined him, Johnny gets a chance at redemption from Winston, one of the shelter’s denizens. Winston’s helping put together, with the backing of a more-than-he-seems casino owner, an unusual card game, the rules of which involve the players making their own cards, cards that “capture life.” Johnny quickly learns exactly what that means–especially in a game where the losers don’t walk away from the table.
Arnzen’s renowned for his excellent short fiction, and proves equally adept in the long form, upping the narrative ante by carefully dealing clues and information at a brisk clip. PLAY DEAD wrestles with some big themes, namely capital-F Fate, our place in it, and how futile the attempts to change it can be.
But where Arnzen really flourishes is in the story’s unique construction. Compiled in 52 sections, the novel is stacked like a card deck with four chapters as suits, yet this gimmick never impedes the flow of the narrative. Equally impressive is the razor-sharp wordplay and symbolism Arnzen employs, much of it shot through with a generous helping of black humor, throughout the book, a barrage of clever turns of phrase that are admirable in both quantity and effectiveness. The skill with which Arnzen writes makes the read worthwhile in of itself.
And now I’m going to listen to this many, many times.