By now, it’s redundant to praise The Queen’s Gambit, the magnificent new limited series on Netflix, which has focused a weary nation’s attention on competitive chess, rather than politics. Says chess champion Garry Kasparov, who helped with the production, “Everybody is watching it. It’s No. 1 in Russia. God knows how, but somehow Queen’s Gambit just hit all the right buttons.”
Who was Walter Tevis?
Indeed, QG is the feel-good alcoholic/drug addict movie of the year (and possibly of all time), and a terrific tribute to the vision of its creator, the novelist Walter Tevis, who wrote The Queen’s Gambit in 1983, in addition to The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Color of Money, but who, till now, has not been a household name.
That all may now change. Tevis’s other books are coming back into print, my copy of QG is now worth almost a thousand bucks, and a long out-of-print self-published Tevis biography by the author’s late ex-wife now fetches hundreds of dollars on the web.
A book that changed my life
I’ve known Tevis’s work for a long time. My dad bought and read The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1963, before he met my mom. My mom bought and read The Hustler in 1959, before she met my dad, and years later, in 1983, she bought me a copy of The Queen’s Gambit. Tevis’s chess novel was that kind of book, something you would buy for people and demand that they read. We QG fans have waited years for the film version, through so many announcements and cancellations. Heath Ledger chose QG to be his directorial debut, but died shortly before filming was to begin. For example.
My dad loaned me his ragged copy of Tevis’s first sci-fi novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth in the mid-1970s, which I have read many times over many decades. The movie, which I saw when it was re-released in its uncut version, around 1980, scared the hell out of me. But it made me a fan of the movie’s star David Bowie, which led me to Iggy Pop, Nagisa Oshima, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Japanese film, Japanese novels, so many things.
I interviewed the film’s director, Nicholas Roeg for The Washington Times in the early 1990s, which wouldn’t have happened if not for Walter Tevis.
Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy” of record albums was significantly influenced by The Man Who Fell to Earth, and his last project during his lifetime was a musical stage show sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Now that the world has discovered Tevis so decisively, where should curious readers turn?
The Queen’s Gambit
Well, of course, start with the novel, The Queen’s Gambit, which is not his best book, but remains his most crowd-pleasing.
With a caveat: The TV adaptation is really very faithful in its specifics, and in its exciting depiction of chess.
But it differs in attitude.
Tevis viewed addiction as a normal, unavoidable facet of the human condition. In his books, alcohol and drug abuse are just there, almost unworthy of comment.
The TV show, of course, takes a different tack, depicting alcoholism and drug-addiction as anomalies, illnesses with a cure.
And the TV show is so filled with joy.
Tevis, was a sickly, divorced man, a lifelong alcoholic who attempted suicide several times before dying young of lung cancer, and he didn’t really see much joie in the human vie.
But Tevis’s ability to write thrillingly about chess is one of the book’s major achievements, along with its depiction of the mystery, randomness and unfairness of genius.
Fans of the TV show will enjoy the book’s descriptions of chess, its 1960s flavor, and a heroine who is complex and indescribable, and simultaneously vulnerable and indestructible.
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Then turn to The Man Who Fell to Earth, Tevis’s best book, which would be almost any author’s best book, a devastating sci-fi psychodrama and quick, short page-turner. Please, if you do read this book, read the original version, published in 1963, and not Tevis’s 1980s rewrite. The original version is perfect.
Thomas Jerome Newton, the titular “man who fell,” presents himself to the world as a brilliant inventor with numerous patentable ideas, all original enough to disrupt the world economy (and put Kodak out of business).
Newton is, in reality, from a distant planet, a world starved of water and fuel, and he’s here on a mission to save his homeworld. His unique genius soon piques the attention of a suspicious FBI, and Newton’s exposure to various human vices and addictions of humanity threaten to upend his work. (Indeed, being human is perhaps the worst vice and worst addiction of all, to which even an alien will succumb.)
The novel is daringly brief, daringly sexless and unromantic, beautifully written, absolutely heartbreaking and in all ways perfect.
If you picture David Bowie while you read this novel, don’t worry, that’s OK. Bowie was iconic as Newton, and even Tevis was thrilled by the casting.
“I think he was terrific,” the novelist said, in what was probably his final interview. “That was genius casting. I think that was really wonderful, and he’s a wonderful man.”
Here again, it may be impossible to approach this novel, about a brilliant pool hustler in the 1950s, without thinking of Paul Newman’s iconic image as Fast Eddie, and that’s also fine.
Even Tevis admitted that Newman supplanted whatever his imagination had originally dreamed up.
“When I read The Hustler,” Tevis said, “I cannot see my characters. I can’t see Fast Eddie and I can’t see Minnesota Fats. I see Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason…. It certainly is testimony to the fact that movies can rape the imagination. I mean, when the author can’t remember what his own characters look like, it’s certainly something.”
Many of his later themes were already there, the joy of the game — Tevis writes about pool as thrillingly and skillfully as he writes about chess — and the inexplicable, random nature of genius; and the book is clean and spare, with the style and tone of nonfiction.
The end is not as dramatic as it should be, and so the filmmakers, in adapting the novel, stuck on an ending that went too-far in the opposite direction, veering towards a melodrama that was un-Tevis-like.
The novel will not move you the way Gambit or The Man Who Fell does, but it will exhilarate you.
The Later Years
After The Man Who Fell, Tevis published nothing for seventeen years, when suddenly he published, in quick succession, the dystopian SF novel Mockingbird (1980), a short story collection, Far from Home (1981), the SF novel The Steps of the Sun (1983), The Queen’s Gambit (1983) and his Hustler sequel, The Color of Money (1984), which, other than Gambit, are for completists only.
Far from Home is recommended for the early stories, which are careful, thoughtful and diabolical Twilight Zone-style science fiction; the stories from his post-gap years are sloppy and embarrassing. The Steps of the Sun, a novel expanded from one of those later short stories, about an energy shortage on Earth and a billionaire who travels to outer space to save his planet, is meandering, too derivative of both The Man Who Fell and Solaris, and rings false in both the future world Tevis created and in the life of the book’s billionaire protagonist. Mockingbird, like Steps, fails in its world-building; but Tevis’s story of a future America, in which the world’s last sentient robot rules a drug-addled, illiterate population, ends with a terrific and moving revelation. With a skilled editor and some good advice, Mockingbird could have been a great book, and it will eventually be a great movie.
Finally, The Color of Money … you ask, how bad could it be? The movie was terrific.
Well, the movie was terrific, but it bears zero resemblance to the book beyond the title. The Tom Cruise character never makes an appearance in the novel, for example.
The pool games are still beautifully, dramatically done, but the rest of the book is episodic and formless.
In his later years, Tevis indeed floundered, a once-great novelist trying to find his way out of the wilderness, with sparks of the old brilliance, but a man in a hurry, his time dwindling away.
Still, with The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hustler, The Queen’s Gambit and his great, early short stories, Walter Tevis has earned a place in any list of our greatest writers.
Steven S. Drachman is the author of Watt O’Hugh and the Innocent Dead, which is available in trade paperback from your favorite local independent bookstore, from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and on Kindle.
Image by Felix Mittermeier.