Wednesday 17 January 2018

Cool gambling saga yields jackpot of truth

Fiction: The Ponzi Man, Declan Lynch, Hachette Ireland, €16.99

Declan Lynch has written what is an absorbing read on gambling culture in The Ponzi Man.
Declan Lynch has written what is an absorbing read on gambling culture in The Ponzi Man.
The Ponzi Man by Declan Lynch.

Hilary A White

Regular visitors to these pages will be acquainted with the sardonic rhythms of Declan Lynch. A former rock scribe who cut his teeth in that mythologised era of Hot Press that produced Arthur Matthews, Ian O'Doherty and the late, great George Byrne, Lynch developed a signature style full of dry fizz and smouldering humour still wielded to this day.

The Ponzi Man sees the 54-year-old flex muscles rarely used in his more natural non-fiction habitat. Following 2009's Free Money, he returns to a topic that has obsessed him of late - gambling, especially the "terrifying" advent of online betting.

This time, Lynch ruminates sublimely on "the disease" from the inside looking out. His protagonist, John Devlin, is the pyramid-scammer of the title, self-exiled to a caravan in his coastal childhood hometown to await sentencing. When the house of cards collapsed, it was a shortage of time that had done John in. The "Thing" had died in the Irish economy and halted the gambling going on on the streets, the stock exchange floors and in the flashy estate agencies. John was a "good gambler", he swears. Unlike many oil-slick sharks, he actually wanted investors to see a return from his high-stakes betting.

Time is not an issue now for John. He may have plenty more once the hearing is done. After being beaten to a pulp by his ex-wife, the only company he keeps are young defence lawyer James, and Ed, a town lush who also happens to be James's estranged dad and a former band brother of John's from simpler times.

One gin-soaked night in the ­caravan, Ed puts two grand on John's online betting account, encouraging him to pick himself back up and try to gamble back the monies he lost. In that stealthy Lynch manner, we somehow end up agreeing with Ed that this is the right course of action for John, willing him on and instantly confirming the author's belief that gambling is culturally entrenched.

On the other shoulder sits James, who wants John to see through his Gamblers Anonymous commitments and help himself attain a lenient sentence. In the middle, there is John and his thoughts because that is all a fallen addict has left to hold.

Chunks of The Ponzi Man - especially one stretch in the third quarter - are spent listening to John piece apart the ingredients that went into his affliction; the trips to the races with his father who would always give him back whatever he'd lost on the horses (unwisely so, John now feels); the unconsummated first love that he botched; the desire for control over his life through taking on the gods down in the bookies. Memories of younger days consume him, when he could burn away and not worry about tomorrow. Music, culled from Lynch's years as a rock journalist, provide symbolism and a soundtrack to the "down-going" - The Stones, Van Morrison, Neil Young.

You can tell that Lynch, who has written about his battle with alcoholism, has circled the scourge of gambling for some time. It's absorbing to read him riff away via John on this ruinous condition that hides in plain sight in society, deconstructing it to its atomic level with more sweat-browed immediacy than the legions of casino dramas out there. We've learned much about Dail gamblers and banking scammers in this country but sometimes it takes a writer of Lynch's brilliance to coolly point out our many gaps in understanding.

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