The Ballad of a Small Player, the sophomore novel from acclaimed travel writer and journalist Lawrence Osborne, is a searing tale of addiction and despair set amid the glittering world of Macau’s casinos.
I discovered Macau by accident, as a place to go to renew my visa while I was living in Hong Kong. I was forced to hang around for a few days, and I started doing what everybody does there: playing the tables. I’m not an obsessive, compulsive gambler, but I was immediately struck by how strange the Chinese casino experience was. It was clear to me that there was some sort of supernatural element at work.
Your narrator, Doyle, says about the casinos, “There’s something about kitsch that makes you feel like there’s more to being alive than being alive.” What does he mean?
I laughed my ass off writing that. But it’s also the key to something that I feel myself. One of the difficult things about writing this book was conveying what is attractive about these kinds of places. The ordinary kind of snobby and dismissive reaction you or I could have—this is tacky and artificial and fake, blah blah blah... It would be such a cop out to write that! When you set a book somewhere, you always have to look for what is mysterious. All human environments contain something mysterious. And what makes them mysterious is what makes them beautiful. So even the vulgar, trashy casinos of Macau have a strange beauty, to me anyway. There is something about them that is melancholy, and moving, actually, because there is a sort of human folly at their core. But I’m not superior to that folly; when I’m in it, I think, all human life is a bit like this.
Doyle’s compulsion to play is overwhelming for both he and the reader. What research did you do into gambling addiction?
I wanted this book to be fast and not weighted down by too much research. I think if I had read hundreds of books about gambling, they wouldn’t have turned out to have been my observations. What I did instead was to just go to the places—go to the casinos. I tried to observe, observe, observe, and soak up as much as I could first hand.
What fascinated you about baccarat, Doyle’s game of choice?
Punto Blanco, the kind of baccarat the Chinese play, involves no skill at all. The reason the Chinese play it isn’t because they want to be pitting their skills against other players—that’s too nerve-racking. What they want is for the forces of luck and chance to dominate totally. There’s something sort of therapeutic about that, I think. You’re in the lap of chance and lady luck. You basically let go—you don’t have to think or feel or have a strategy or be smart. You just lose yourself in the moment.
Doyle also clearly has a drinking problem. Why are English writers so good at tales of alcoholic dissipation set in exotic locales?
Well, you know, I think the English have a very psychopathic relationship with drink.