uick who wrote The Queen’s Gambit? Although the 1983 novel – the basis for the hit Netflix miniseries – has recently become a paperback bestseller, its author’s name is not half as well known as it should be. But Walter Tevis was more than a one-hit wonder.
Tevis’ first book, The hustler (1959) is the classic novel about professional pool players and was made into an equally classic film with Paul Newman as “Fast” Eddie Felson and Jackie Gleason as the preppy Minnesota Fats. Published a quarter of a century later, Tevis’ last novel, The color of moneyvisits the meanwhile middle Felson again when he takes on a new, younger generation of pool players. Newman starred again in the film, which this time bore only the slightest resemblance to the novel. But then, as Tevis admitted, he only wrote it for the money, since his previous book – about a chess player – had never reached a second print in his lifetime. Today a nice first edition by The Queen’s Gambit would cost you £ 500 or more.
Walter Tevis, born in 1928, was a sick, unhappy child who lay in a hospital bed for many months and was treated with addictive phenobarbital for rheumatic heart disease. This experience – and his feeling of being unloved – marked him for a lifetime. Two shocking, apparently autobiographical fantasies in his 1981 short story collection, Far away from home, coolly examines these family dynamics: “A visit from the mother” revolves around incestuous desire and “Papa” deals with ruthless oedipal rivalry.
Tevis grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and regularly took refuge in the local pool hall. His early stories, of course, focused on what he knew best. once The hustler was chosen as an option by Hollywood, but he used the money to draw an MA in creative writing from the University of Iowa. Afterward, Tevis settled in Mexico with his wife and two children, where he started drinking heavily while finishing his second novel. The man who fell to earth.
It was published in 1963 as a paperback original with a gold medal, as surprisingly no hardcover publisher wanted this brilliant story of loneliness, alcohol addiction and despair. In it, a gentle, worried alien secretly comes to earth, where he is considered human and takes the name Thomas Jerome Newton. Anthea, the alien’s home planet, is dying, its water and other natural resources are nearly depleted, and it is the last hope for its 300 surviving residents.
Newton could also be Earth’s last hope as he plans to fulfill his life and death mission before the outbreak of global nuclear war. “Do you realize that you’re not just going to ruin your civilization as it is and kill most of your people? but that you also poison the fish in your rivers, the squirrels in your trees, the flocks of birds, the ground, the water? There are times when you seem like monkeys to us, loose in a museum, carrying knives, slashing the canvases and breaking the statues with hammers. “
Newton cosmically discovers a little comfort in wine and then in gin. As he drinks more and more, he feels himself lose his sense and sink to the level of the creatures among whom he now lives. And then there is a disaster in the form of the FBI.
Lonely beautiful The man who fell to earth examines existential and moral issues familiar from Conrads Heart of darkness‘Camus’ The stranger and the old science fiction movie The day the earth stood still. It was also made into a film starring David Bowie, which Tevis thought was perfectly cast, though he found the film itself overly artistic and confusing. His own writing is invariably clear, and his prose is based on nouns and verbs.
Along with these two novels about the acquisition or loss of self-control, Tevis published 19 short stories between 1954 and 1963, many of which were clever: “What if?” Stories that sometimes end with irony Twilight zone-esque twist. He could type one one evening, revise it and send it off the next evening. He never researched.
In 1965 Tevis accepted a position at Ohio University, where he taught for the next 13 years. Grades, family commitments, and serious drinking left him with little inclination to write. To relax, he often played chess with another faculty member, Daniel Keyes, author of the heartbreaking science fiction masterpiece Flowers for Algernon. There are times when I wish OU wasn’t my second choice when I applied for college.
By the late 1970s, Tevis’ life changed dramatically. He sobered up, fell in love with his agent’s assistant, left his wife and moved into an expensive New York apartment. There he decided to resume his stalled literary career.
What came next was Mockingbird, a 1980 novel set in a decaying future where robots do all the work. Drugs keep the docile human population in the “chemical serenity” associated with “pain and sex” television shows. No books have been published since 2189. Society’s mantras are “Don’t ask, relax” and “Fast sex is best”.
The novel focuses on three characters, each of whom scrubs for something more out of existence. Robert Spofforth looks like “a black man in the prime of life” but is actually the most sophisticated android ever built. As the de facto ruler of the United States, he longs to regain all the bits and pieces of human intelligence that were used to form his own. Otherwise, the tired, long-lived Spofforth simply longs to die.
According to former Doubleday editor Patrick LoBrutto, he and Tevis have tirelessly edited and reworked this dystopian vision of drugs and television as an escape from real life. Like all work by Tevis Mockingbird is certainly, if weird, autobiographical, a parable about the liberation from addiction and the pursuit of self-realization. It’s also praise for literacy. As Paul says in a desperate moment, “Whatever happens to me, thank God I can read that I really touched other men’s minds.”
In addition to the books I mentioned earlier, Walter Tevis brought out another science fiction novel: The steps to the sun (1983), which I save for another day. He died of lung cancer in 1984 at the age of 56 – a cruel loss to readers and American literature.