Stuart Dybek: “Four Deuces”

02/07/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in A Public Space 13, 2011.

People in love got it easy: they really can listen to one another talk all day and never get bored. Writers don’t have it nearly so good: they’ve got to chisel these words onto the blank page — arduous work, if you’ve never really tried to polish down to the essence — and then convince you of those word’s worth, to cajole you with each sentence — nay, each phrase — to keep on reading. Not that “it gets better,” but that it’s damn good already. Dybek’s approach takes us, the reader, to the limits of our attention span and then, unfortunately, past it, as the bartender/owner of The Four Deuces, Rosie (or Rosebud) decides to spill her life story to her only patron, Rafael (an artist), who reminds her of an angel. By cutting out Rafael’s occasional comments and skipping over descriptions of their interactions (save for the constant refrain of “na zdrowie” that reminds us that they’re drinking/toasting throughout), Dybek writes a strong, confident monologue that unfortunately runs out of steam.

At the beginning, the narrative is clear: Rafael has been scratching some picks for the track, and Rosie, who used to gamble regularly with her “sumnabitch” husband Frank, uses this as an opportunity to start talking to him. Once she’s got his ear, she explains that they won this bar — 220 W. 22nd Street, “Four Deuces, that’s a deceptively lucky hand. A man with a hand like that lays in wait for the kill” — using the profits from one very lucky day at the races. Apparently Rosie had some sort of psychic power — she only half believes this — that was given to her by the devil (at least, that’s what she imagines), and when blindfolded, she could suss out the winners more often than not, and this allowed them to nail a Pick Three jackpot at 45-1. This voice may also, in an IRS scam gone bad, have led Frank to kill his betting partner, Lester, over the profits; at the very least, it drove Rosie into a sadomasochistic relationship with Frank, whom she drove to whip her, to mark her. And, worst of all, it’s possible that this unconscious “deal” may have led to Rosie’s miscarriage and her subsequent year of depression, a year in which she suspects Frank grew close to their new neighbor, a provocative Widow with a proclivity for leaving her “unmentionables” hanging out on the laundry line across from their window. It’s supernatural mumbo jumbo on one level, sure, but Rosie’s conviction sells it: you can hear her voice, and Dybek fills the story with rich details that allow us to see their relationship, with Frank turning from a lewd poet who used to deface two-dollar bills with his lascivious odes to her into a BOH (Bartender Occupational Hazard) with a tendency to drink up their profits. Among the gems:

  • You know the difference between a dreamer and a visionary? … A dreamer’s asleep, Rosie. A visionary’s so wide awake everyone else seems like zombies.
  • Frank had a theory there was a hidden theory to luck and if you could find it, the odds would be on your side. Don’t matter if it’s astrology or astrophysics, he’d say, they’re both about a pattern in the stars that allows you to predict. That Oriental rug you’re standing on is just a design to you and me, Rosebud, but if a swami saw it, he’d know there was a prayer woven in it.

Then there’s Frank’s previous job, as a railway dick (the night cop who keeps out vagrants and vandals), which turned into petty larceny and a pack-rat mentality, to say nothing of the patterns he would find in random graffiti, which he’d jot down and save. The idea, time and again, is that if you put all these things together, if you find a way to know them, to learn them, you’ll have that killer hand nobody sees coming — the four deuces — and you’ll be able to win anything. At the same time, there’ll be a price to pay for this knowing, and it’s their inability to find salvation in each other that drives a jealous Rosie and alcoholic Frank apart, to the place at which the story begins, with a widowed Rosie talking to a handsome stranger with whom she does not want to sleep. This is also what runs the story off the rails: the moment this Williams-like romance breaks apart, when the physicality ends and Rosie becomes the obsessive snoop, the story becomes all too banal. We’ve also become so accustomed to Rosie’s phrasing that it’s no longer fresh: she’s spoken for so long that we’re inoculated to her charm. And of course, all the supernatural elements have been severed by this point, so it’s ever more a rant and less of a mysterious confession.

A few solid moments remain, with Rosie realizing how much she still needs Frank for organizational purposes, or finding that he’s still the only man for her (something about suffering together, perhaps?), but this second half (of a fifty page story) is mainly focused on plotting, and less on the unique details that so ground the initial section. It’s also a bit confusing, with Rosie visiting a priest and obsessing over the scent of cologne (sandalwood) that it turns out he doesn’t wear, and if we’re supposed to connect these new sexual urges back to the devilish thoughts she had oh so many pages ago, well, it doesn’t quite work. It’s noticeable, but really only in the effort with which it takes to run back to the four deuces metaphor, or to repeat earlier lines in a new context: methodical, planned, less organic by far than the way the monologue starts out, and, oh yeah, given that she’s been drinking this entire time, you’d think the opposite would be happening to the narration.

To make a long story (and review) short(er): a race was never won by rambling.


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