Tuesday, September 22, 2015

On "Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi" by George H. Devol *

I'm not sure now where I read about this book--whether it was suggested to me on Good Reads or whether I came across it in some other work--but it was not nearly as interesting as I thought it might be. Devol's work is not an autobiography in a standard sense. Had it been, I might well have liked it. Instead, it is a collection of anecdotes about his life, more or less put down in the order in which he recalls them. There is no chronology, no narrative development. And many of the anecdotes are so similar in form that they become hard to distinguish from one another: Devol walks onto a boat (or a train), meets up with his partner, and plays cards with a group of suckers who don't know that Devol and the partner are in cahoots. Devol is a gambler, he says, but he doesn't seem to gamble much at all--he seems more often simply to be a cheater and a conman. Lose a few rounds to your friend, get everyone else thinking you're no good at the game, and then whallop them with a huge take at the end. And be sure to mark your cards.

The more I read, the more I despised this man, who thinks himself generous when he hands back enough money for some poor sucker to get home on, having taken him for all else he was worth. Sorry you won't get to buy that ranch you were looking forward to moving to or go duck hunting with that new gun you purchased or travel around the United States, having come here from Europe. Sure, one can argue that the people who agree to gamble with Devol are responsible for choosing to do so in the first place and thinking that they could cheat Devol out of his own cash, but sometimes, in reading, I found my heart renching for all that such men sometimes lost.

Devol also spends a good time writing about his ability to fight--and especially to head butt. I'd thought the latter was something kids gave up by second grade. Devol claims to have a hard head that can take down anyone--but one he's used so frequently that is covered in abrasions.

And yet, the irony is that come Civil War time, Devol spends just a short period in the military, and coming to see the danger in war, runs off to return to gambling--and most especially to despoiling the soldiers who happen to come through New Orleans during and after the war. I can, I suppose, give Devol credit for showing his own dishonor and pure selfishness when it comes to national service.

Whatever I may think of Devol and his profession, Devol seems to think highly of it and of himself. He claims that gamblers are more honest folks than most of society, accepting their losses, when they happen, unlike some who try to recoup their "fairly" squandered money. Gambling, as Devol points out at the end, is something only human beings do, and as such, it shows off human intelligence.

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