The Luck of the Draw
For a trio in Tunica, making a killing is all in the cards.
"A game of disguises": That's what's at play in Charles Wilkinson's debut novel, Ghost of a Chance (Cold Tree Press). But it isn't the only game in town — make that two towns: Tunica, Mississippi, and Las Vegas, Nevada, where a hand of blackjack can make your day or cost you a fortune.
Taylor Robinson — former college professor, former jailbird, and expert card counter — knows it. Danny Askander — a self-declared "Reverend," a gun-toting fraud, and a former jailbird too — knows it. And so does "Repo" Ramona, who can deal you a winning hand as sure as she can deal herself a lifetime losing streak. A blond bombshell by the name of Stormy? She may be a bimbo, but she's a player too. She's got a system, and the system involves playing the Reverend off Robinson.
But who is "Soothsayer" inside a computer chat-room called "Stargate"? Good question. One thing Robinson and readers do know: "Soothsayer" is the user name of the woman who's calling the shots here — Robinson's shots. How? She's a sexual turn-on, and she's got what she calls the gift of prophecy. Too bad, though, for Robinson. He can't see that he's in for a real killing, and it isn't in Memphis, his hometown. It isn't down Highway 61 in Tunica, and it isn't inside the Mirage in Vegas, where Robinson, the Reverend, and Ramona plan to make a cool million at blackjack. Instead, the big payoff takes place off a stretch of Nevada's Highway 50, "The Loneliest Highway in America." What could be lonelier? A ghost of a town, the climactic setting for Ghost of a Chance. But those abandoned store fronts? They're false fronts — the town itself not what it seems.
No disguising Wilkinson's mastery of his material, however. This is high-stakes blackjack described at lightning speed and for all its worth. This is also what it's like to be an inmate inside the Shelby County Jail and what it's like, with a little luck, to survive a brutal beating. Here is tree-lined Midtown in one chapter, the empty fields of North Mississippi in the next, and the far emptier spaces of the Far West in the book's closing scenes. But here is something else in this fast-moving novel of wrongdoing and characters done wrong: existential musings, courtesy of Taylor Robinson, a man who keeps his academic background under wraps but a man who sees order amid the chaos in a swarm of bats, observes time's trajectory in the twinkling of a star, and questions the nature of reality by the light of a computer monitor.
What are the odds of an author pulling all this off? Better than average if, like Wilkinson, your hometown is Memphis, you earned a master's in literature from Vanderbilt, you've taught in the English departments at Rhodes College and the University of Memphis, and you know more than a thing or two about the luck of the draw. Today Wilkinson teaches advanced composition at Southwest Tennessee Community College, but his days at the blackjack table are numbered. Not that he's stopped playing entirely. It's just that, as Wilkinson says, "I had a slight stroke a couple years ago, and there's my blood pressure. I can get real mad at the table. I have to watch it."
Those odds of success are increased if, like Wilkinson, you're taking your literary cues from the journalistic style of Raymond Carver and the wit of William Burroughs. But what are the chances these days of a debut novel getting into print, a novel that began as a short story? Not great, but in the case of Ghost of a Chance, it wasn't a matter of chance. It was local writer Cary Holladay who recommended that Wilkinson expand that story into a novel. After a half-dozen publisher rejections, it was Wilkinson's friend John Wilson Spence who recommended the finished novel to Cold Tree Press in Nashville. But it was basically a matter of work — seven years of writing, some of it sporadic, according to Wilkinson, a lot of it devoted to revision.
"This book was tough," Wilkinson admits. "Writers talk about sitting at the keyboard, and something comes over them as if they're taking dictation. Well, that has never happened to me. Every sentence was a struggle."
Maybe so, but in Ghost of a Chance, the struggle doesn't show. Something else does: a writer of real talent perhaps speaking his mind through one Taylor Robinson — after Robinson leaves the Reverend and Ramona (but not the game of blackjack) behind him, before Robinson sets out, alone, on "The Loneliest Highway in America":
"He felt like it had all been plotted. He felt like a character in a novel, that nothing that had happened to him since he played his first hand of blackjack had been under his control. It was strange, because wasn't that exactly what trying to beat a gambling game was — an attempt to control the uncontrollable? But if it all seemed plotted to lead him to this point — the deadly seriousness of which was just beginning to sink in, and which no existential 'choice' could completely account for — who was doing the writing?"
Good question, and in Ghost of a Chance, there's no final answer. Unless you count Charles Wilkinson.
In the mid-1860s, Colonel Robert Campbell Brinkley was en route to England hoping to gather financing for a stretch of railroad linking Memphis and Little Rock. On board the boat, he met up with an American businessman and philanthropist by the name of George Foster Peabody. But by the time Brinkley returned to Memphis, he not only had his railroad money, he had, thanks to Peabody, the money he needed to fulfill another dream: to build a grand hotel in downtown Memphis.
That hotel, at the corner of Main and Monroe, wasn't to go by the name "Brinkley House," however. In gratitude, Brinkley christened it in 1869 "The Peabody." Since that time, the location of the hotel may have changed, but the name remains, and it's synonymous with Southern hospitality on a grand scale and in the grand style. The Peabody: A History of the South's Grand Hotel, text by Jaine Rodack, tells the story in words. Photographs, thanks to art director Sharyn Burson, tell the story in pictures.
The result is a handsomely designed, informative look at a hotel that went from hosting Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and President Andrew Johnson in the nineteenth century to welcoming on one memorable day (at the hotel's current location at Union and Second) former President Jimmy Carter, Michael Jordan, Nicolas Cage, and Cage's fiancée at the time, Lisa Marie Presley. That star combination — on hand to watch the world-famous duck march — was nothing the hotel couldn't handle. The Grand Duke Alexis, son of Czar Alexander II of Russia, visited in 1872. Billy Joel stayed there too and performed impromptu on the lobby's piano. Mick Jagger once ordered (and got) the Rolling Stones their Guinness before the beer was available in Memphis, and Lou Rawls married there in 2004. In 2005, President George Bush exercised there on an elliptical trainer that had to be borrowed from the home of Marty Belz, president of The Peabody Hotel Group.
Belz: That's the Memphis family responsible for restoring The Peabody to its former glory after Belz Enterprises purchased the hotel at auction in the mid-'70s. Twenty-five hundred yards of velvet, 18,000 rolls of grass cloth, 21,000 feet of carpet, and $25 million later, The Peabody in 1981 was back. In the decades after, downtown Memphis would be back too. Go back yourself in book form and revisit the hotel's lavish interiors, its staff photographs, its guest photographs, its newspaper clippings, and its menus — its altogether rich history in times that were good and sometimes not so good.
The hotel's The Peabody. And now the book's The Peabody, a beautifully produced keepsake.