This novel really got to me, gang. It’s about Mike, a documentary filmmaker from New York, who thirsts for success but hasn’t broken through to the mainstream, making movies that no one sees. His best friend, Sebby, is a degenerate gambler who plays the horses and hooks Mike in with a no-lose, can’t-miss scheme that will make them all a lot of money. Mike’s tired of living a hand-to-mouth existence and wants to believe; the problem is, Sebby’s reputation is shot with all the bookmakers, so he gets Mike to make the arrangements and assume the risk.
Things, of course, go awry, and Mike is soon conning his family out of money, lying to his boss, and dodging appointments with the trunk of his bookie’s car. Every step of the way, Mike is given opportunities for redemption, but he denies them all. Not not out of stupidity – although that’s arguable – but his decisions are always reasonable within the context of the book. He turns down help from his well-off parents because of pride and Catholic guilt. He turns down help from another filmmaker that he secretly yearns for because he feels unworthy of her. People he runs into tell him how good his new movie is, but he ignores them, hearing only the the big studios won’t pick it up. It’s very well-written, and you’re with Mike every step of the way down to oblivion, and you soon realize that in our own lives, no matter how well-built up and insulated we think we are, we’re dangerously close to the bottom. It reminds me of a bit from the late comedian Bill Hicks: “do you know how easy it is to become a bum on the street? All it takes is the right girl, the right bar, and the right friends, and they will see you off. They will christen your Dumpster for you.”
My only complaint with the book is that Dixon is almost too subtle with his plotting; he undersells the high points in favor of a slowly building, backburner approach. The fixed horse race that ends unexpectedly only lasts a short paragraph or two, while in other books it would get its own chapter. Subtlety isn’t the worst thing in the world, of course. The Art of Losing isn’t a feel-good redemptive tale by any means, but it’s a excellent study of how good intentions and a bit of pride can ruin anyone.