Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Something horrible has happened to David Baldacci’s writing since his work of the early 2010s. I have volumes going back to 2019 on my shelves and I’ve given away many editions before then. In previous critiques I have praised the quality of this author’s command of language but levelled criticism at the sameness of his plots, the lack of adventurousness in his outlook, and the impression he leaves that his intention is to do no more than turn his work into a money-making enterprise.
In A Gambling Man I can only report that the book is his weakest yet. The rawest amateur writer has heard the maxim: Show. Don’t tell. Advanced writers often vary the way they treat such a simple command, but they do not abandon it altogether. What are we to make of this overt piece of padding:
He got a recommendation on a place to stay the night from a gal behind the bus counter with blonde hair that wrapped around her neck like a naughty mink stole and mischievous blue eyes to match. She had a curvaceous figure that reminded him of the photo of a swimsuit-clad Ava Gardner he had kept in his helmet during the war (2).
Who is this girl? What contribution does she make to the story? None at all, really. She is an attractive woman but occupies a role that goes nowhere.
The author describes in infinite detail his “two-piece tan wool pinstripe suit, with a patterned green single-Windsor-knotted tie, fronting a starched white shirt and topped by his crown-dented fedora with a brown band” (2). I could speculate that, the year being 1949, the author is on the search for authenticity of costume according to time. Maybe there is another reason for writing in this way. If so, I haven’t found it. The writing is grotesque.
A new character is introduced in this way:
“You look lost, soldier,” said the voice.
Archer was outside the depot now, fully immersed in the delicious heat that seeped up from the pavement and gave him a hug (3).
The need to work out just where the hug was coming from took moments away from the flow of the story. Just another unwarranted interruption. Just another oddity, like a heroine who throws all her sexual desires openly for our hero to gather in only to be rejected time and again, presumably because of an issue affecting him in the opening pages. When he finally gets his priorities sorted, and sex with a woman occurs, “Archer felt like he’d been hit by a Mack truck, in the best possible sense, even as her nails gouged his back and slid all the way down to his butt” (308). Sadly, it’s the wrong girl!
Despite my criticisms, the old Baldacci appears in a regular fashion throughout the book. Some passages are enjoyable. However, much of his better writing is afflicted with his ‘new style’ inserts, such as the ‘run-fast’ descriptor in the following sentences:
Archer performed a run-fast walk until he reached the water on the other side of the island. He had measured his strides and gauged the island as being about three miles in width (287).
The final point I must make concerns the title. What does the key word ‘gambling’ refer to? Gambling in a casino is finished by page 27. Gambling on a girl…I don’t think so. The title will have to remain a mystery in a book that nobody should worry too much about. It’s a poor piece of popular literature.
By David Baldacci
$32.99; 400 pp