TABLE STAKES by ERNEST TIDYMAN (1978, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 348pp) ∗∗∗½
Blurb: David Burnham, a poker player of the old breed, crisscrosses the country with thousands of dollars in a battered briefcase, hitting the Big Game with Broadway producers, Texas oil millionaires, Hollywood moguls and the captains of Detroit. His lifestyle forces his wife to walk out on him with their son, Paul. The boy grows up admiring and envying his father from a distance and, eventually, emulating the legendary father in his own arena: rising from the cutting room floor to executive suite of a reviving film company. But, at the top, married to his boss’ beautiful daughter and contemplating a corporation takeover, Paul re-examines the parental code that has guided his life this far and determines for himself the price of winning and losing.
Table Stakes was Ernest Tidyman’s last novel (the factual Big Bucks being his last published work in 1982) and his most personal creative work in print, if not necessarily his best. Tidyman himself was an avid gambler and had also worked in film production since the early 1970s. Much of his knowledge of both is evident in the way he pieces together this moral drama. Tidyman gives all the main characters their own voice and allows them to breathe and as a result they feel real. Most of his characters are deeply flawed and selfish and the central father and son characters demonstrate this vividly despite their individual ideals.
The novel is split into two books. the first, titled Desperado, deals with father, David Burnham, and his inability to break away from the gambling table to take a respectable job as well as devote time to his wife and son. He is successful at what he does and sees no reason to change his lifestyle. His loyalty to his gambling partners outweighs that to his family. Whilst he plays an honest and honourable game he finally loses his wife and son when he is drawn into one final Big Game. Later tragedy strikes and we move on a generation to the second book entitled Scenario.
Scenario represents the final two-thirds of the novel and concentrates on son Paul who has returned injured from Vietnam. Paul looks to establish a new life for himself. An old friend of his father’s – Junior Gordon, owner of Gordon Film Studios – gives him a job as production coordinator in a bid to provide his friend’s son with an income, if little responsibility. When Paul teams up with Gordon’s own son – Bernard, who has self-destructive tendencies mirroring those of Keith Moon – and the pair produce a screenplay resulting in a successful movie, Paul’s star is on the rise. He at first seems loyal to his new girlfriend, but succumbs to the temptations offered to the rich and powerful and ultimately weds Junior Gordon’s daughter – the beautiful but vacuous Melody.
All this begins to play like a soap opera on the scale that would later be served up on TV by Dallas or Dynasty and there is plenty of sexual activity to add spice to the story. But there is also depth to the moral messages Tidyman gets across on the themes of power, ambition, family and trust. The latter plays very heavily in the novel’s final act in which Paul is torn between making the right decision for the business and his loyalty to his father-in-law. In the end it is evident that there can be no long-term winners and this is ultimately Tidyman’s comment on gambling and the film industry in general. Ultimately his message is either your luck will run out or you will alienate those closest to you in your pursuit of success. He sees success as a self-feeding beast driven by ambition and greed that can only ultimately leave you feeling manipulated and totally alone. A depressing message, but one seeming to come from first-hand experience.