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The Gambler's Nephew by Jack Matthews

The Gambler's Nephew

by Jack Matthews

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Many writers do their best work early in their careers, people like Joseph Heller or Thomas Wolfe, for example. Others don't strike gold until middle age. Consider Vladimir Nabokov, who was in his mid-50s when "Lolita" was published. You can read a fascinating account of why some artists peak early and some later in life in the "Late Bloomers" chapter of Malcolm Gladwell's "What the Dog Saw." But what do you make of a writer like Jack Matthews?

I took two creative writing classes taught by Matthews when I was a journalism student at Ohio University in the mid-1960s. He was about 40 then and had a book of short stories, "Bitter Knowledge," and a book of poetry, "An Almanac for Twilight," under his belt. Soon he was turning out novels like "Hanger Stout, Awake!," "Beyond the Bridge" and "The Charisma Campaigns," a favorite of mine. These were good novels, but not great, and despite a nomination for a National Book Award (for "The Charisma Campaigns"), he never achieved the literary big time. After 1983, although he continued to write both fiction and nonfiction books, these were published mostly by small presses and university presses.

Matthews died three years ago at the age of 88. His last novel, "The Gambler's Nephew" (Etruscan Press) was published in 2011, just two years before his death. So I didn't expect much when I started reading it a few days ago, yet I was blown away. This is an incredible novel that deserves more attention than it probably will ever receive.

The story begins in the 1850s in the Ohio River town of Brackenport, where a businessman named Nehemiah Dawes has such strong views about slavery and grave robbery that people tend to avoid him even if they agree with him. One day Dawes sees two men force a runaway slave into a boat to take him back to the other side of the river. Dawes has his gun with him and decides to back up his big talk by shooting one of the slavers. Instead he kills the young black man, yet doesn't receive as much as a stern talking to for his act. But when Dawes himself is found murdered, authorities are quick to hang a former employee, despite scant evidence of guilt.

Who is the protagonist in this novel? Matthews keeps us guessing. Until his death, it seems to be Nehemiah Dawes. Then the focus switches to his brother, to a young doctor and on and on to others, as main characters fade into the background. Much later we realize that the runaway slave, the "gambler's nephew" of the title, is the true protagonist, even though we never actually meet him in the story. Everything revolves around him, even when it doesn't seem to.

The novel, because of the voice of the mysterious narrator, seems lighter than it really is. We are tempted to read it with a smile, then may feel a trifle guilty when we realize where Matthews is taking us.

Whether or not "The Gambler's Nephew" is Jack Matthews's masterpiece, I will leave to the literary experts, if any of them bother to consider the question. But I will say that for a man in his 80s to produce a novel of such depth, power and grace is something amazing. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Dec 28, 2016 |
I've read most of Jack Matthews' fiction, and this is probably among his best works. Highly readable, provocative, and full of grand ideas and humor. (See my complete review on my blog).
  rjnagle | Dec 2, 2011 |
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A highly readable and historically accurate story about how an accidental killing of a slave in 19th century USA affects various families and communities. A old-fashioned yarn told with cunning and irony..... Recommended if you like: Mark Twain, books about pre-Civil War and the South, novels that depict a panorama of characters (a la Dickens), John Gardner’s Grendel, William Kennedy, Saul Bellow
Like many of Matthews’ other stories, Gambler’s Nephew is a period piece with regional flair, detailing the local scandals of a river town called Brackenport in the mid-nineteenth century—as if Huck had made his intended turn at the Ohio....

For a story focused on morality and rife with violence, The Gambler’s Nephew is surprisingly light-hearted. Many contemporary authors try to make you writhe under the weight of heavy philosophical issues, but Matthews would rather you shake your head and give a small smile.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0981968775, Paperback)

"Jack Matthews’ first novel, Hanger Stout, Awake!, was published in 1967, and his latest, The Gambler’s Nephew, is already the 23rd in his half-century career. Thankfully it’s never too late to discover a writer this pleasant to read."—Claire Blechman, Ploughshares

"There's so much to delight a reader in local author Jack Matthews' new novel, The Gambler's Nephew, it's hard to know where to start. Probably with the prose, which Matthews writes with easy, lyrical grace and a bulls-eye wit."—Jim Phillips, The Athens News

"Jack Matthews is an American original."--William Heyen

Years ago, way back in the l850s, there was a wealthy merchant in the little Ohio River town of Brackenport by name of Nehemiah Dawes who got to brooding over slavery and grave robbing so much that his mind became unbalanced.

The Gambler's Nephew presents a world of abolitionist passion, murder, and old-fashioned cussedness, a world of steamboats plying the Ohio River, and a world with people troubled by such grand irrelevancies as love. Here is a world as richly confused as our own—and as alive as living can get.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:30 -0400)

"The Gambler's Nephew" presents a world of abolitionist passion, murder, and old-fashioned cussedness, a world of steamboats plying the Ohio River, and a world with people troubled by such grand irrelevancies as love. Here is a world as richly confused as our own--and as alive as living can get.… (more)

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