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Seduced by the Fast World of Bookmaking : CONFESSIONS OF AN IVY LEAGUE BOOKIE by Peter Alson; Crown $22, 228 pages

May 13, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Literary confessions, from St. Augustine to the four ex-prostitutes who wrote "You'll Never Make Love in This Town Again," have always been suspect.

No matter how heinous the sin may be or how heartfelt the author's repentance, various subtexts can be found stowing away aboard the ship of narrative. Sometimes they climb on deck and take over the wheel.

It wasn't my fault, such a memoir tells us. If you knew who the real villains were, I'd look as godly as George Burns. Blame society. Blame (fill in the blank). My parents. My boss. It was only a youthful indiscretion, heh, heh, a sign of life's inextinguishable gusto and color. It was the apprenticeship I had to pass through to become the worldly wise but deeply compassionate human being I am today. Besides, I needed the money--if not from the original crime, from the sales of this book. Which, incidentally, you, the audience, have betrayed your prurience by reading. Tsk, tsk. Shame on you.

If the author is also a professional writer, like Peter Alson, other subtexts appear: Can't art, in the end, redeem any subject matter? Be honest, now. Isn't good prose itself virtuous, even sexy? Isn't the story what really counts?

"Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie," at first glance, seems a more dubious case than most. Alson's crime wasn't so terrible--he clerked for several months at an illegal bookmaking office, fielding sports bets in a New York tenement he shared with vaguely Mafia-linked characters nicknamed Spanky, Steak Knife and the Monkey. Arrested once, he quit. But what was his excuse? He was a Harvard graduate, for Pete's sake, handed a ticket to the legitimately affluent life, expected to know right from wrong.

A clue: Alson is Norman Mailer's nephew. Like his uncle, he tends to admire people who have "chosen to live their lives outside the socially accepted boundaries, to thumb their noses at the world."

The Damon Runyon types he met at the bookie office filled that bill. As Alson describes them, with a real gift for dialogue, they were gusto and color personified--especially the Monkey, who claimed to have "whacked" 17 people and who "radiated such confidence and certainty about how the world worked . . . that it was possible to come to the conclusion that morality really was for suckers."

At 33, Alson was broke, depressed, panting on the free-lancer's treadmill, splitting with his girlfriend, "Anna," over issues that seemed connected with his going-nowhere career. He was ripe to be seduced by "Michael," a much younger acquaintance who was making $150,000 a year as a bookie.

Alson admits he shared the weakness of others of his generation, raised on high expectations and trapped in the economy of the '90s. "Ninety percent of the population work at jobs that they hate," Michael told him. "To me, that's worse than anything." Even crime seemed preferable to that "ordinary hell."

Besides, gambling is a widely tolerated addiction that erases social boundaries, as Alson discovered. Kidding himself that he was researching an article on bookmaking, he approached a magazine editor with the idea. The editor, he says, asked for his phone number--to place bets.

This is the blame-society part, of course. As for appeals to our covert fascination with the noir side of things, we get a thorough briefing on the mechanics, rituals and slang of bookmaking, plus a bedside seat at Alson's affair with Anna.

Ultimately, though, Alson is relying on the quality of his prose and on Uncle Norman's legacy of candor, betting that we can't help but sympathize with a confused, lovesick fool who can muster the insight to diagnose his and others' wasted lives.

Guess what? He wins his bet. Step up to the book counter and pay the man his money.

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