You’ve either read Lawrence Osborne’s The Ballad of a Small Player or you haven’t. One wouldn’t abandon the work halfway if only because it’s short, readable, and both beautiful and sickening enough to keep you hooked until the final implosion of central character “Lord” Doyle. Sorry for the spoiler, but if you think a washed up runaway British lawyer/embezzler can escape a Macao-based gambling binge alive you either misunderstand current trends in modern narrative or gambling addiction or both. Literary folk love a good nose-dive nowadays. Osborne delivers.
The genius is Osborne’s central incorporation of Buddhist reincarnational traditions into his character’s development, specifically his use of the caste who exist just above those in the out-and-out Buddhist “Hell”: the Hungry Ghosts, or èguǐ, a term which I include here with trepidation given my limited knowledge of the appropriate syntax. For those who aren’t familiar, the Hungry Ghosts are souls whom, because of some level of misconduct, have been sentenced to an afterlife of torment-by-hunger. They have large stomachs and very small mouths, making them a referential group of East Asian Tantalae, if you will.
During an opening third that Go-Pro-ishly follows Doyle’s initial financial demise at the hands of Baccarat (a skill-less card game which after further research seems structurally purposed with ruining your financial life), we find our anti-hero out of money, impossibly indebted to very dangerous people, and the new owner of a strange, insatiable hunger for food. Osborne’s first visible wink. Enter stage left (for the second time) probable-call girl Dao-Ming, which translated means (from what I can find) “shining path”. She offers Doyle a way to redemption, taking him back to her small island abode where she feeds him, loves him, and positions him on a path toward redemption. Initially it seems Doyle has stumbled into a makeshift heaven: an opium-fueled respite where he finds emotional stability, gratification, and the freedom to wander regularly to the local haunts to eat slippery lobster and get drunk in anonymity. However, his insatiable hunger soon returns stronger than ever and, after stealing Dao-Ming’s life savings, he heads back to the mainland hoping to restore his monetary fortunes.
As you might imagine, he hits an implausible lucky streak in Baccarat. A casino manager suspects, due to both the mathematical improbability and a woman’s insistence that she saw a ghost behind Doyle at one of the tables, this streak has been caused by supernatural involvement. After winning more money than is necessary to describe in detail (you and most of the people you know would all be able to retire together) he goes in search of Dao-Ming to (sort of) apologize for stealing all of her money and to reunite with her. Doyle isn’t a morally admirable figure. So we can’t quite say he’s realized what he really wants, but there’s a wiff of hope and redemption in his quest. After managing to locate her place of business, however, he learns that she killed herself several weeks prior. Whoops.
While we never quite get the sort of Western clarity we might insist on at the end of a story like this (“was Doyle talking to himself the whole time?”, “only part of the time?” “Was Dao-Ming ever physically real, or just the ghost that helped him win at the tables?” your author may have accidentally posed out loud to his American Airlines companions) we are left with the brief and steep decline of Doyle into death as his insatiable hunger finally overtakes him while mourning Dao-Ming beneath city street foliage of some kind. It’s gorgeously pathetic, with a slight slip into the comforts of Zen nothingness as the final sentence fizzles out.
As I closed the book and adjusted again into my diminutive seat for the remainder of my flight, my thoughts turned to Drake’s career. I know, I know, but I’ve been a big fan of his for awhile now and am fascinated by his persistently-meteoric rise over the past half a decade. He has, improbably, kept making the right bets over and over again and now finds himself near the top of an enviable career summit. Say what you want about the content, the dude has hits and there aren’t all that many names that come up in the same conversation.
Something many of us have admired about Drake over the years is his honesty about his desire for both personal success and romantic/emotional intimacy. For every “0 to 100” there’s a “Marvin’s Room” or “Shot For Me”, and both subgenres of his have sounded solid when they’ve connected with the disparate existential pitches that have birthed home run after home run after home run for him. He’s always in the midst of, or just over, some sort of trouble with women (which I can relate to though in a much-less-cool way) and always ready to assert his dominance over all foes both real and imagined (us INFPs don’t possess that trait in the same way so we admire those whom we can sub in to tomahawk dunk on people for us). There’s a self-defeating regalism to him, a sort of introspectively-sad-modern-ruler vibe. A painting of Drake in pharaoh garb enthroned atop a pyramid built from the mud and straw of his own emotional turmoil, self-diagnosed personal failures, and astronomical talent wouldn’t be too far off the mark.
Which brings me back to the much more dubious and morally defunct Doyle. He knows that gambling, and by extension his fortune, won’t make him happy. He actually admits to preferring to lose. But he can’t stop himself in either situation because of the insatiable hunger for more, and more anything except the thing he needs. A perpetual retreat from love and peace into failure, success, being aloof, refusing rescue, despair, drugs, alcohol, women, the list goes on (not much further, however, as your beloved author admits that the list of outlets for "redemptive" wantonness and debauchery prove to be disappointingly limited if you choose to explore them to at least a fuller extent.) It’s a cycle which, once it picks up speed, swallows Doyle whole to keep the metaphor consistent. And it struck me, somewhere over Nebraska at 10:30pm CST on a Sunday night, that Drake may be in similar danger. That he may be bumping up against the beginnings of a level of fame and attainment, the having-everything-ness, that far more often leads to engine failure than it does to arrival in any kind of personal or third-party-sponsored elysium. The kind of means-to-an-end where the means consume the end and are still hungry for more.
You of course remember Drake’s massive record Take Care from 2011. There’s a somberness to it, a mixture of bravado and subdued reluctance in the face of his departure into the airy stratosphere of success that awaits him. At one point, on the opening track “Over My Dead Body”, he croons “I met your baby moms last night/we took a picture together I hope she frames it/and I was drinking at the Palms last night/and ended up losing everything that I came with”, a line that in the context is flashy but in the years since, and in relation to Doyle’s story, has taken on a more harbingic hue. The possibility that everything he's lost in the glow of the Palms’ casino lights may have been much more than he realized at the time.
This isn’t an indictment against Drake, far from it in fact, but rather a question of whether we’ll ultimately remember him as an emo-musical Khafra or as an ensuing Gizan Sphinx who cut off his own nose to spite his face. As a testament of the inherent evils that come with the self-prevention of personal happiness in exchange for wealth, or as a pre-curse Midas who learned when to say when. It isn’t imperative that our personal ambitions eat us alive in the end, but it is possible and ultimately tragic if they do no matter what we may have attained in the short term. It’s also a question posed to each of us in the face of the romanticized "Je ne sais quoi" that fuels our constant push toward a brighter and brighter future. Our persistent expectation of one-percent better from everything, including ourselves. A demand for an answer for where we’re trying to go, what we think is our ultimate end, in the midst of our often vague push for self-actualization. A call to reflect the next time we put on Drake or any musician at his level as to what we, or he, are actually celebrating anymore.