Mark Shechner died Oct. 16, 2015, at the age of 75.
He was my friend. For decades, he was also a friend of The Buffalo News. I provided him with books to review, edited the reviews and oversaw their publication. Book reviewing is a peculiar and special skill, and Shechner was great at it.
Even so, I underestimated him. We now know he could be, in his wildly idiosyncratic way, a great writer period. If I was among the many who had trouble realizing that, chalk it up to the ancient proverb “familiarity breeds contempt.”
The final Shechner book – one that wound up tragically posthumous – is called “Cherry Picker: A Literate Look at Losing at the Slots” (Huntington Press, 171 pages, $14.95 paper.) It exists in a permanent state of hilariously Shechnerian paradox. In the Elysian Fields of American Literature, it comes from the wrong English professor at the wrong school with the wrong reputation. (Three previous books of Jewish literary scholarship and one on Joyce).
In terms of literary impact, it’s about the wrong subject viewed in the wrong way and, in a crowning burst of perverse glory, it’s from the wrong publisher, a Las Vegas outfit called Huntington Press, which describes itself as “a specialty publisher of Las Vegas and gambling related books and periodicals, including the award-winning consumer newsletter, ‘Anthony Curiis Las Vegas Advisor. ’ ”
We’re not exactly talking about Knopf here. This is not big-time literary publishing.
But here you have what turns out to be, in many places, a truly great book about a great, if recondite, subject that has emerged from the last place the United States at large would have gone looking for it. And Shechner knew all that before his death, too.
His professional milieu – the English Department of the University at Buffalo – was one of the last places in the world he could seek out congenial souls on this book’s subject.
“In the snooty environment in which I worked, gambling is regarded as an illness like closet drinking, or an embarrassment like a Turrette’s outburst, at best a character weakness to be met, inevitably, by a change of subject. I brought it up recently to a friend who replied ‘How do you like your Hummus Wrap?’ When I persisted? ‘Oh, you won a hundred and fifty this weekend. By the way, have you read Homi K. Bhabha on mimicry?’ Luckily, I found a secretary and her husband who love to gamble and return every year from Caesar’s Palace with a fistful of W2-Gs.(Tax forms signifying winnings.) Of course, we had to huddle in corners to talk about our adventures.”
Gambling is clearly the wrong subject in a socially correct world. And that’s what Shechner engages so brilliantly – casino gambling, but not the telegenic kind i.e., high-stakes Texas Hold ’em poker.
No, Shechner’s casino obsession of choice was the most plebian of them all – the slots, where he merrily pronounced himself a “slot slut” – one who never expects to win but loves the game.
There is no place in the literary U.S. where one is encouraged to celebrate gambling, despite flourishing casino culture, and certainly nowhere that celebrates gambling on its lowest level.
But here is Shechner, after an academic life of Joyce and Phillip Roth scholarship, engaging brilliantly with a segment of the U.S. that thousands flock to but precious few writers or publishers want to touch.
And even when they do, what is required of writers is exactly the sort of “snootiness” – or at least dramatic alienation – that Shechner says he used to experience with his UB colleagues.
He writes about all the surrounding casinos here and has “gambling guide” things to say about them all. But where this self-delineated “literate” examination of gambling by a lifelong professor rises above its already perverse and wonderful self is in a magnificently intemperate chapter of sulfurous fury at a “feature article published a couple years ago by the Institute of American Values, descriptively titled ‘Casinos as a Bleak New Senior Citizens’ Center.’”
Some of it ran in 2012 in The Atlantic.
It informed the U.S. that “not only is casino gambling widespread … often [seniors] offer gambling as their favorite form of entertainment … One third of the U.S. population visited a commercial casino in 2012 and more than half these people were aged 50 and older.”
Before Shechner is finished, he has applied his blowtorch to those who’d disapprove of “those gambling seniors, with their walkers, their wheelchairs, their players cards, their $2.99 buffets, the tubes in their noses, and catheters in their trousers who are never permitted to be adults, people who got on the bus voluntarily, do it (to) travel with their pals and go home with their stories, enjoying their outings, and play their penny, nickel, quarter and dollar slots with the same caution and restraint or recklessness and abandon as any whale at a high-stakes table at Caesar’s Palace. They’re never permitted to be big boys and girls who are free to spend their money or wager their money or blow their money– in short do the normal things we all do with our money – without being regarded by the social work militia as too addled or brainless or deceived to know what they’re doing.”
At that point, Shechner, the lifelong rock devotee, quotes The Who’s Roger Daltrey: “People try to put us d-d-down ... Just because we g-g-get around.”
Shechner was obviously asked by his Las Vegas publisher to advise older (and perhaps literate) casinogoers in such matters as “Zen and the Art of Slot Playing” and “What to Carry With You.”
What he did instead was produce a book of truly astonishing perversity and anger. He confessed to an American life that has always been in eccentric thrall to Las Vegas and in love with casinos, driving across the U.S., rocking, writers and books.
I didn’t share two of Shechner’s life passions – casino gambling and cross-country driving.
But I love the nose-thumbing perversity of Professor Shechner in his final literary act on earth, producing a book hilariously disguised as a practical guide but really a celebration of things millions love but that right-thinking Americans are much too well-raised and polite to talk about.
Give us a chance, and we’ll always change the subject to the hummus wrap you’re eating.