What is more important: doing what you love or being financially stable? What kind of risk would you take to achieve both? How corrupting is money? These are the questions that hover in the background in Keith Dixon’s recently released novel The Art of Losing .
In a recent Q&A, Dixon described the book as “literary noir” and that seems an apt term. It has the grit and darkness of noir with the style and depth associated with literary fiction. (BTW, it is a hybrid genre (not that the one precludes the other anymore) that I am rather found of these days. I think fellow Nomads Olen Steinhauer and Kevin Wignall could both be grouped in this category.)
The Art of Losing centers on the life of Mike Jacobs, a documentary filmmaker, after he has landed in New York City by way of LA. While his films have been well accepted critically they have been financial disasters. Jacobs throws his life into each only to have it flop at the box office. In rather desperate financial straits, he decides to take a risk in order to achieve some independence.
This risk involves fixing a horse race with his producer friend Selby. This plot soon involves Jacobs making contact with various bookies (Selby’s bad reputation on the gambling circuit prevents him from doing it), losing large sums of money to prove they aren’t con men, and bringing in a couple of jockeys to help throw the race. The plan is to win big by controling not who wins but who loses. As is the way with such plots, however, the supposedly fool proof plan doesn’t quite come together. This puts Jacobs face to face with some rather nasty folks. Suddenly, Jacobs is thinking about how he is going to survive as it seems his entire world is coming down around him.
Dixon handles the plot well and the tension is well calibrated. Just like an out of control gambler, Jacobs slowly gets himself in deeper and deeper; each time hoping he can finally get control of the tiger he is riding. Dixon avoids gratuitous violence and instead allows the reader to feel the fear that constantly lurks in the background for Jacobs. The pressure – financial and social at first but soon emotional and physical – gradually grows until the violence breaks through the surface.
But what makes The Art of Losing more than just a skillful thriller, is the psychological and spiritual issues that Dixon weaves into the narrative. One theme is the quest for independence and the balancing of art and money. Jacobs has a wealthy self-made father who is happy to support him financially, but he wants to make it on his own; to achieve success on his own terms. Despite his devotion to his art, Jacobs wants both the stability and the validation that commercial success brings. His father envies, or at least pretends to, him because he is “doing what he loves.” But Jacobs isn’t so sure the starving artist role is all that great.
The relationship between Jacobs and his father, and his own internal struggle, evoke thought provoking issues that most of us face in our lives. Who among us hasn’t faced the difficult choice between making a living and enjoying your work? Between doing something you are passionate about and putting food on the table. Dixon doesn’t offer any easy answers but skillfully portrays that difficult tension and the struggle it involves.
The other interesting theme is the price we pay when we ignore our conscience. Jacobs chooses to risk everything for financial independence; for the so called easy money. Along the way he ignores the advice of those around him. This stubborn and selfish streak leads him to keep digging deeper in the hopes he can somehow claw his way out of the mess he has created. Instead, things go from bad to worse and the dishonesty and pain only grow.
Running throughout the narrative is a discussion of the character/nature of God. Jacobs has always feared God and viewed Him as a capricious and vindictive power. In a way, he projects his own bad choices and failures onto God and thus allows himself to escape judgment. Just as Jacobs is struggling to find a balance between life and art, he is struggling to find a spiritual path in his chaotic life. And just as he wants to have it both ways financially – art without sacrifice – he wants to have it both ways spiritually – virtue without guilt. Jacobs struggles with God because it means something bigger than himself; it means acknowledging rules and boundaries.
But just because Jacobs chooses to ignore the moral issues and risk everything doesn’t mean those issues will just go away. As one of the bookies tells him: “once you start laying bets, youâ€™re in, and the only way to get back out is to settle the book. The bookâ€™s always going to be settled, one way or another.â€ Jacobs finds out in a painful way that his actions have consequences and that one ignores that little voice inside at your own peril. When you find yourself in a deep hole, the first step is to stop digging. This truism has a spiritual element as well. Bad choices have consequences. Ignoring, your conscience is like removing an important guardrail. Dixon explores these difficult questions and issues subtly but in interesting ways. The theme starts out as a small thread but by the end has become a critical element to the story’s resolution.
I am not sure I have captured the nature of these ideas very well. But let me wrap it up here by saying that The Art of Losing is a sharp, intelligent, and well crafted novel. What starts out as a gambling caper turns into a noirish morality tale that will leave you thinking long after you have finished the book. I highly recommend it.