The Walter Tevis Renaissance

The Walter Tevis Renaissance

On the revival of one of the most perceptive American chroniclers of addiction.


Gin, bourbon, valium, weed, horse racing, nine-ball, poker, pills, petroleum, chess, sex, television, losing, winning—the novels of Walter Tevis are queasy with addictions big and little. Most are hazardous. Some are deadly. A few seem nice enough, but nice is usually booby-trapped somehow, so that a character can’t enjoy, say, a game of pool without going on a bender a page later. These are novels without rising or falling action; they move to the jerkier rhythms of recovery and relapse. When an addiction is fed, life levitates along; when starved, nothing can ease the pain except feeding some other addiction. Often there’s no escape, since Tevis makes even non-addictions seem addictive. Depression is addiction to misery. Civilization is addiction to resources. Genius is addiction to whatever you’re a genius at. Life is addiction to food, water, and pleasure that eventually comes to a cold-turkey close. You wonder what he would have said about OxyContin or the iPhone—or, for that matter, The Queen’s Gambit, the Netflix miniseries adapted from his 1983 novel.

When a dead writer enjoys a revival, it probably has more to with the ins and outs of literary estate law than anything in the zeitgeist. But whatever the reasons for the current interest in Tevis’s troubled, binge-filled novels—Vintage Books has just reissued all six of them, including The Man Who Fell to Earth, the inspiration for a new Showtime miniseries—they are perfectly suited for our troubled, binge-filled times. I’m not sure if “write what you know” was already a cliché in 1960, the year Tevis graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Even when he was writing about androids and aliens, however, he wrote what he knew, because what he knew was addiction. In 1938, he was diagnosed with rheumatic heart disease. His parents placed him in the Stanford Home for Convalescent Children and moved to Kentucky. He was fed phenobarbital daily and, one year later, pronounced cured. He was 11. Soon afterward, he began the long love affair with alcohol for which he would always blame the gentle nurses of Northern California.

Some biographies are so over-the-top as to seem completely fictional. As if to prove this point, Tevis donated his own to Beth Harmon, the orphaned chess-prodigy heroine of Queen’s Gambit. At the orphanage where Beth spends most of her youth, the children are forced to take bright green pills, which turn out to be tranquilizers. A janitor teaches Beth, already hooked on the pills, the rules of chess. A kind of counter-addiction is born: Playing the game gives her the ultimate rush, and not playing feels like withdrawal. She lies awake in bed all night, picturing a chessboard on the inside of her eyelids. The only way to fall asleep is to revert to her old addiction and swallow more pills.

Addiction grinds against ability in these books, occasionally sharpening but mostly dulling in the long run. In The Hustler (1959), Fast Eddie Felson is only happy when he’s playing nine-ball for money, but he’s happiest when he’s playing for money and drinking bourbon, until he’s too hammered to play anything at all. The dystopian society of Mockingbird (1980) plies its citizens with painkillers so that nobody will learn how to read. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963), one of the greatest of the many great American novels about alcoholism, cunningly fuses the sharp with the dull. On his own planet, the alien calling himself Thomas Jerome Newton is an ordinary specimen; on ours, he’s a brilliant businessman-inventor with double the average human’s brainpower. Planet Earth makes Thomas extraordinary but also introduces him to the delights of alcohol and pop culture, which wreck what’s left of his life and drag his IQ down to respectable Earth numbers.

Tevis protagonists come in many shapes and sizes, but they’re all addicted to something and preternaturally great at something else. If this sounds like a drinker romanticizing his drinking, it probably is; in all fairness, the over-the-top achievement in these books, no less than the over-the-top alcoholism, has some basis in fact. Tevis published his first novel the year before he completed his MFA and promptly sold the film rights; The Hustler, starring Paul Newman, was nominated for eight Oscars. His second novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth, was made into a film starring David Bowie. Even when he failed, he ended up on top. He struggled to stay sober throughout the ’70s and wrote no novels, but in the early ’80s seemed to find peace and made up for the silence with The Queen’s Gambit; a pair of science fiction novels, Mockingbird and The Steps of the Sun; and a Hustler sequel called The Color of Money. He died in August 1984, just long enough to learn that Newman would be reprising his role for The Color of Money movie. Thirty-six years later, Netflix (not to mention the sudden uptick in board game sales) helped put him back on the bestseller list. There’ll be a biography someday soon, and I’ll bet every dollar to my name that a Mockingbird miniseries is already inching its way through preproduction.

The Tevis revival makes sense in some ways and no sense in others: His novels are all profoundly fucked up, and not the titillating kind of fucked up that usually finds favor in American pop culture. The main characters are damaged, sometimes irreparably so, and one—Spofforth, the glum robot-Gabriel of Mockingbird—craves death. They’re charismatic, too, but because Tevis is clear about their damage, charisma doesn’t always prevail; they’re like Hemingway characters without the merciful murk of the iceberg technique. “He was incapable of warts,” we learn of Thomas the alien, “but stomach ulcers, measles and dental caries could affect him. He was human; but not, properly, a man. Also, man-like, he was susceptible to love, to fear, to intense physical pain and to self-pity.” Tevis can be almost sociopathically frank about human ugliness, but because he’s frank, we trust him on the rare occasions when his creations transcend their ugliness; ugliness makes their transcendence shine brighter. Whoever writes his biography should call it Love and Dental Caries.

For a writer whose oeuvre was half-science fiction, Tevis was never terribly good at imagining alternate worlds. Where The Hustler is full of pungently detailed descriptions of damp pool halls and the people infesting them, most of Mockingbird takes place in vague rooms where two or three characters at a time shove the plot forward. Exposition tends to be carelessly dumped on top of each chapter instead of woven into it—there’s none of the fun of tossed-off scene-setting familiar in Philip K. Dick or J.G. Ballard. But then, fun isn’t Tevis’s forte, either; if there’s a single drop of humor in his novels, it must have been a careless mistake. With humorlessness comes a self-serious machismo, and a near-total lack of interesting female characters—the one major exception, Beth Harmon, being recognizably female in anatomy, pronouns, and nothing else (it’s telling how much less sexism she faces in the book than in the series).

Put another way, the problems with Tevis’s books are the problems with addiction. It reduces reality to a narrow set of mirthless impulses, remaking the world in the addict’s image, leaving no time to stop and smell the roses. He gets away with this for the most part, I think, because addiction is a good metaphor for the way the world works. (I know we’ve been warned against thinking of illness as metaphor, but some illnesses are stronger metaphors than others—by the time Susan Sontag issued her famous warning, anyway, she’d already called the white race the cancer of history.) He simplifies recklessly, but in simplifying he draws our attention to a kind of dumb, piggish self-destruction that’s at least as much a part of humanity as melancholy or freedom. He does what autofiction writers say they’re going to do but usually don’t: delves deep into his own sorry life and, at some point in mid-delve, uncovers something about life qua life.

In contrast to the novel-as-trauma-striptease of the early 21st century, a Tevis novel tells you exactly what’s wrong with the main character straight away: Beth Harmon lost her parents, Eddie Felson can’t stop drinking, Spofforth wants to die but can’t, etc. He tells you exactly what’s wrong with the world, too: In Mockingbird, nobody believes in duty; in The Hustler, everything is for sale; in The Queen’s Gambit, love is no longer possible, if it ever was. In The Man Who Fell to Earth, American consumerism poisons everything it touches—merely to exist in this lurid wasteland is to sell or be sold. The spaceship that brings Thomas to Earth is commodified almost as soon as it lands (a farmer charges passersby 50 cents to see it and sets up a soda stand nearby), and soon enough so is Thomas. He thinks he can dabble in earthly things and get out, selling enough commodities to build a spaceship that will bring his fellow aliens to Earth before they go extinct. Instead, he gets hooked on those commodities and sold out to the FBI.

Stories about alien visitors tend to exoticize the everyday; by seeing through the alien’s eyes, we notice the absurdity or injustice or dishonesty hidden in plain view. The US Thomas discovers is a giant propaganda machine, flattering “that overdressed and immensely comfortable middle class that almost all television shows dealt with, so that one could easily get the notion that all Americans were young, sun-tanned, clear-eyed and ambitious.” Tevis’s other novels offer more or less the same view of the middle class (it’s phony, narcissistic, etc.), not that this is a particularly rare or insightful view. The rare part is that they offer it without the slightest venom—he barely cares about the middle class enough to criticize it at all. There’s hardly a single overdressed, clear-eyed striver to be found in these pages; characters are either fantastically poor or fantastically rich, sometimes both in the same night. In bypassing the middle, he exposes the weird sisterhood of extreme poverty and wealth: You can keep your own hours, work when you feel like it, and spend the rest of the day drinking.

There is nothing comfortable about this kind of life, but there is nothing boring about it, either. Unimpressed by the phony middle-class stasis of marriage-parenthood-retirement, his protagonists have only their private thirsts to guide them. This makes for precarious living but significantly more interesting literature. Where a novel like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life takes hundreds of pages to decide that the world is a nasty place and no amount of liberal arts college, careerism, bourgeois monogamy, or therapeutic soul-searching will make you whole, Tevis’s novels assume all of this from page one, proceed to ask, “What else is out there?” and answer, “Plenty.”

Indifference to middle-class culture did not make Tevis a fan of counterculture. (In the boho-ish nightmare of Mockingbird, citizens are encouraged to vacation on Drop-Out Reservations—the unsubtle point being that hippies have traded one herd for another.) He had no patience for rebels without a cause; instead, his protagonists are intensely disciplined, zealous worshippers at the altar of their own talent even when drunk or stoned or tranquilized. When they feel joy, it’s the joy of a job well done. Eddie Felson, 1959: “His stroking arm was like a conscious thing, and the cue stick was a living extension of it. There were nerves in the wood of it, and he could feel the tapping of the leather tip with the nerves, could feel the balls roll; and the exquisite sound that they made as they hit the bottoms of the pockets was a sound both there on the table, and in the very center of his own soul.” Beth Harmon, 24 years later: “Her mind was luminous, and her soul sang to her in the sweet moves of chess.… the energy of her amazing mind crackled in the room for those who knew how to listen. Her chess moves blazed with it.”

And so, against all odds, despite all the solemnity and self-destruction, the novels of Walter Tevis are joyful. Joy comes blazing to the surface at the most unexpected times. Above all, he offers us the joy of individuals testing their talents in pursuit of success—whether it’s success in chess or pool or something else doesn’t matter, because at its core, the joy of pursuit is always the same. This sounds like another kind of addiction (chasing the dragon, etc.), and maybe it is, but it’s something much stranger, as well. When Beth finds the perfect move in chess, it’s as though the move is already there, waiting for her to discover it, and a selfless, almost mystical joy sets in—her addiction becomes her calling.

Humming below all this, you can hear the selfless, mystical joy of an author finding his own calling, squeezing drama out of anything, even chess, discovering the words that were always waiting for his typewriter. I don’t believe writing cured Tevis’s drinking; he was 56 when he died, and if he’d lived longer there may have been more books, more drinking, or both. I don’t believe he believed in being cured at all. Only a few of his protagonists kick their habits (Eddie seems to at the end of The Hustler, but it doesn’t take, or else there’d be no sequel), and he never wrote a completely happy ending. Happiness for Tevis is unpredictable, infuriatingly so, but worth chasing.

Taken together, his novels raise a possibility that could be transcendent or terrifying, depending on how you look at it: There’s no way out, but there is a way through. If life is beset on all sides by addictions, then the goal is to find one that rescues you from the others by bringing you joy and pulling you out of yourself. There’s no guarantee of hope but there is, at least, a glimmer, and as I write this on my laptop—which is also my library, my diary, my desk, my telephone, my collected letters, and a sizable chunk of my life, and which was designed by people whose business model involves getting me hooked on as many dull distractions as possible—it gleams brighter than Tevis could have imagined.

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