I used to imagine Hell as a Sisyphean search for friends in a packed, Covent Garden Piano & Pitcher bar on a Friday night. In The Ballad of a Small Player, Lawrence Osborne describes a different version of purgatory, that of the impossible task of making money in the garish interiors and themed decors of casinos. Anyone who has wandered through Las Vegas gaming palaces will recognize the oppressive setting of Osborne's story, where addicts are oblivious to the passing of time. He conjures up a seedy world where logic, reason and causality are replaced by a belief in coincidence and luck.
The action takes place over a short period of time in the life of Lord Doyle, who is not a lord, and whose name may not be Doyle. He is an English con man, living in exile in a casino hotel in Macau, surviving by gambling stolen money. When we meet him, he is on a losing streak and down to his last few thousand HK dollars.
Doyle is a lonely character, although he claims to have two male friends. The three men beg money from each other when they lose, and lie in order to avoid paying their debts. They attract female company only when they have cash to spare. In a brief encounter with one of these women, named Dao-Ming, Doyle is forced to look at himself as he really is: "Something about her had made me feel ashamed, [-] how repulsive I must be, how oppressive and pitiful."
And so the book is essentially a study of Doyle's character; sad, lonely, stuck in his way of life, haunted by his failures and crimes, unable and unwilling to escape what is a living hell. The oppressive atmosphere and a feeling that the protagonist is drifting toward destruction are very Graham Greene-ish, something that other reviewers have commented on. About half way through one senses that something in Doyle's world is not quite right, but in terms of plot, one might say that not much happens except that a man loses money and makes money, and in the process, loses his soul.
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