*Recently, LaVerne Online sat down with C. Bradford Eastland, author of a novel which has been labeled by turns brilliant, breathtaking, both old-fashioned and newfangled, and even (occasionally) oddly experimental. It’s called WHERE GODS GAMBLE, a tale of American mythology, and was published in 2011 by iUniverse Inc. Below is the transcript of that interview with the author:
LaVerne Online: So Brad, what made you decide to write this book?
C. Bradford Eastland: Well, I don’t think a quote-unquote serious writer “decides” to write anything. That decision is made by the work itself. Something inside of him tells him to put something down about a particular topic, or issue, or historical vignette, and he just does it. Even the length of the piece is chosen for him.
LVO: What do you mean?
CBE: Well, if he can get his points across quickly and shockingly, he writes a short-story. If he needs more time and elbow room he does a novel. But if he’s a serious writer he doesn’t make that decision himself any more than he decides whether or not to write literature at all. Otherwise, I assure you, he would never chose to embark upon something as difficult, thankless, and perpetually frustrating as a life of writing fiction!
LVO: But what about this book? What about Where Gods Gamble? Great title, by the way. Anyway, what made you decide to do a book about the racetrack?
CBE: Again, I don’t mean to be difficult, but it’s not a book about the racetrack. Not really. The track is merely the enveloping action for the story. It’s the background of the canvas, so to speak, to use an artistic metaphor. In The Great Gatsby it’s the Jazz Age, but it’s not really a book about the Jazz Age. In Moby Dick it’s a whaling expedition, but it’s not really a book about whales. Whaling is just the vehicle which drives Melville’s art into the head of his reader….But I sense you’re trying to find out why it was that I chose the track to drive my art, right?
CBE: Fair enough. I’ve always loved horse racing. I’ve been going to the track since I was sixteen, and there was a time—very long ago, now—when I would attend the races over a hundred times a year. So it’s definitely a world I know inside out. More to the point, I thought it would work well as a symbol. I wanted to do a “good vs. evil” piece, and I also wanted to do something involving post-WWII America vs. the USSR, also something with a religious allegory and an American History allegory…it’s actually several books going on at once. And so once I got it into my head to explore all those themes, the racetrack served me well as a symbol of all that is good and free and true.
LVO: Well, let’s start with the basic story. Without giving too much away, what is the basic set-up of the novel?
CBE: Okay. Basic set-up? Well, I guess to sum things up you could say it’s a circuitous tale of despair and redemption. It takes place in the winter and spring of 1980. Right around the time of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The main character, Charles Edison Barnes, age 24, has just returned to Los Angeles from a two-year pilgrimage of flight and self-discovery, driving all across America, all the way to New York and back. And what he has discovered —among other things—is that he is a very depressed and frustrated young man who has thus far been unable to inject sufficient purpose or meaning into his life to make it a life worth living. In other words, he thinks he’s a failure. So what he does is give himself a deadline, of sorts, a deadline of about three months within which to produce enough accomplishment and instill enough success into his life to justify that life; otherwise, he has decided, he will then simply and summarily end it.
LVO: You mean kill himself.
CBE: That’s what I mean.
CBE: Thank you. But please withhold your wows until after you read the damn thing….
LVO: And so the thing he decides to use to try to justify his existence is the racetrack?
CBE: You’re half right. He makes his first visit in a couple of years to his local racetrack, Santa Anita Park, which is right over near Pasadena, right around the time he accepts a job. The type of humdrum “regular” job he hates. And so the book alternates between these two worlds; between the easy-to-do yet depressing, stifling, and enervating world of the 9-to-5 petty functionary, and the immensely difficult but exciting and life-affirming challenge of the racetrack.
LVO: And by challenge, you mean betting on horses….
CBE: That’s right. His first day back at Santa Anita he falls in with a professional gambler, who immediately begins mentoring Charlie in the do’s and don’ts of the professional handicapper.
LVO: And so therein lays the tension of the novel.
CBE: Right again. Will he succeed at his regular job? Or will he succeed at becoming a full-fledged professional gambler like Thomas? Or will he fail at both? And if he fails, can he pull the trigger? Or will he get someone to do it for him. So as you can see, he has a lot riding on the next few months. He’s pushed all his chips into the pot. He’s all-in.
LVO: Let’s touch on a few of the supporting characters. First of all, what about the gambler, whose name you say is Thomas?
CBE: Yes; Thomas. He doesn’t like being called Tom. Which doesn’t matter in the slightest to Charlie, at first, because he doesn’t even know the guy’s name. Charlie had known the guy a little bit several years earlier, didn’t like him, and since he didn’t know his name back then, he never thought to ask what it was now—until the 4th chapter of the book. But even though they start out disliking each other, Thomas and Charlie grow to love each other like brothers….
LVO: What’s he like?
CBE: Thomas is quite the mysterious character. He’s fat and sloppy and profane, while at the same time he’s a disciplined, no-nonsense genius when it comes to making money at the track. And he’s inscrutable. He comes and goes, appears and disappears without warning. Charlie doesn’t even know where he lives or where he goes after the day’s races are over, or anything. He stubbornly refuses to accept any of Charlie’s invitations to go out eating or drinking after the last race is run. But his character—and his mentoring of young Charlie—is the key to the novel.
LVO: What about other key characters?
CBE: Well, first of all there’s the villain, Leonard Balshin. Balshin runs the insurance home-inspection bureau where Charlie works. He’s big and mean and sadistic through and through, well over six-five and 300 pounds and more than willing to use that bulk to intimidate his employees. He’s also a World War Two veteran, which comes into play later. Then there’s Bernie Goldman, an insurance inspector twice as old as any of the others, who, it turns out, has become Balshin’s virtual slave over the years and soon becomes Charlie’s close friend….and there’s another inspector, Bill Fletcher, a slimy worm who seems to have a different agenda than his colleagues. Other significant characters include Herb Saperstein, a mysterious dinner guest in attendance when Charlie comes to visit his parents for the first time in a couple years, and Ben Craig, Charlie’s best friend from his youth who shows up at just the right time to make an important contribution. And last but not least there’s a stunningly attractive young lady named Penny who Charlie meets at a local pub and unfortunately—seeing as how Charlie has, during this trying time, temporarily embraced a life of celibacy—he doesn’t quite know what to do with her.
LVO: Quite a hodgepodge!
CBE: It was a fun book to write and is, I think, a very fun book to read. Or course that’s just me!
LVO: You implied earlier that there are several books at once operating beneath the surface….
CBE: Certainly. Writing merely to amuse people seems to me a tragic waste of time, and I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for any author who didn’t think he had more to say about the world than anyone else. Otherwise, why read him? Why trust him to take me somewhere important, why choose him to instruct, inspire, broaden my horizons, much less squander my time?
LVO: You’re referring to things like symbolism, allegory—
CBE: —all that good stuff, yes. It’s up to every individual reader to discover these wonders for himself, but let me just mention, briefly, that there’s a religious allegory somewhere within Where Gods Gamble, there’s an American colonial history allegory running all through it, there are plenty of Russo-American, Cold War, and post-Vietnam socio-political undertones, lots of good stuff. And of course, there’s the mythology angle. Mine is an attempt to establish a sort of “American mythology” in fiction, seeing as how we are such a young country after all. In fact, the full title of the book, Where Gods Gamble, a tale of American mythology, let’s the cat out of the bag right from the get-go, don’t you think?
LVO: Now that you mention it, yes!
CBE: With the one major twist being that most of the mythological heroes and villains in the book—Leonard Balshin being the obvious exception—live only in Charlie’s troubled mind and are thus self-created, and self-nurtured, by him.
LVO: Well, that’s certainly a novel approach….
CBE: Very funny. But point well taken. When someone asks me, “Brad, what’s Where Gods Gamble about?”, I usually reply with something cryptic along the lines of, “It’s a modern-day epic of the human mind”. That usually produces a pretty confused facial expression.
LVO: Very good. Brad, are you like a lot of novelists who grew up worshipping and drawing strength from various writers of the past? Who were your literary influences?
CBE: Well, I wouldn’t say “worship”, but sure, I had my literary heroes, ‘still do. There are three in particular who inspired me. My “holy literary trinity”, if you will.
LVO: Who are they?
CBE: The first was Stephen Crane. He’s famous of course for The Red Badge of Courage, but I admire him far more for his work with short-stories. He might be the most brilliant technical line-by-line fiction writer there ever was, and when I was in my 20s he was the first writer who instilled within me the notion that the literary art form, particularly short fiction, is the greatest and most effective art form the world ever thought up. Thomas Wolfe was also immeasurably important to me. You Can’t Go Home Again was my favorite novel growing up, and might very well still be my favorite. When I first read it it got right under my skin, and it made me want to write an epic novel of my own. And that’s when I put together the first rough sketches and early drafts of Where Gods Gamble, over 30 years ago. And finally, J.D. Salinger showed me how a writer can be flamboyant and quirky and still be deep and timeless at the same time. Those three.
LVO: Quite a group. So those are your ‘big three’?
CBE: Indeed. And there are many other fine writers I drew from and pulled specific things from in my early years; I admired O. Henry for his cleverness, Hemingway for his polished tradesman approach, Updike for his use of pop culture and exploration of modern social norms and hypocrisies, Edith Wharton for her use of the mystical, John Irving for his bizarreness, Homer himself for the epic, the list goes on….
LVO: The education of a fiction writer….
CBE: I suppose. Anyway, I wager it was their combined influence that inspired me to shoot for greatness in my own work.
LVO: Speaking of shooting for things, what are you shooting for with Where Gods Gamble? What’s a home-run result, say, five years down the road?
CBE: Ah heck, I’m interested in the same things any other unknown, unlucky slob from Iowa is interested in! A bigger publisher and a big movie deal, the usual. So if there are any literary agents out there who are in the business of up-selling to the big New York publishing houses, that’s who I’m hoping sees this interview. That would be a home run.
LVO: Brad, how can people get a hold of your book?
CBE: Just google it. Or better yet, the easiest way is to just go onto amazon.com and punch WHERE GODS GAMBLE and C. Bradford Eastland into their search bar. It’s in both hardback and paperback. Kindle too, but I don’t push the kindle. I’m old fashioned. I much prefer the idea that a person might want to keep a physical copy of Where Gods Gamble on their living room bookshelf. And for the best reason of all—because they read it and loved it. Remember, I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for any author who didn’t think he was the best damn writer on the block. For me, that means stick the damn book on your shelf.
LVO: Thanks for your time, Brad….
CBE: No, thank you. It has been a privilege and a pleasure.