September 28, 1997

“Balling the Jack” by Frank Baldwin

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
New York Times Book Review

The title of Frank Baldwin’s first novel is a slang expression for betting everything on one attempt. Here the bet is on a game of darts — and the everything is both money and a girl. Although he is not the prose stylist Jay McInerney was when he made his debut with ”Bright Lights, Big City,” Baldwin’s book does revel in some of the key elements of what became a subgenre of 1980’s fiction: a narrator in his 20’s with a stifling entry-level job, aimless sexual encounters, prodigious drinking. Baldwin deploys an unusual amount of plot, which occasionally feels contrived, and his youthful exuberance is sometimes flat-out silly. Still, the narrator, Tom Reasons, spins a smart and amusing tale of urban knight-errantry: ”On the menu tonight is everything you get out of bed for: friends, women, music, drink.” True to the ”Bright Lights” model, Tom doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, but he does know what he wants to avoid. ”We come out of school with a million commercials in our head,” he sighs, ”a million pictures of how it ought to be. A safe job, a family, our own house? I don’t know anybody who dreams about that.” But by the end of the book, even though he’d rather not see them (”I’ve never thought that far ahead and I’m not about to start”), they’re all lurking on the horizon.


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