I can only think of one time in my life when I was so frustrated and disappointed with a book that I threw it across the room in disgust. But if I had been reading James Swain’s Loaded Dice, instead of listening to it on CD in my car, I would have thrown that book too when I reached the final few chapters.
I tell you this not to make you think I advocate book destruction or am a bad book caretaker. Quite the opposite, in fact. I have written articles at this site about my love of writing and reading, which is one reason I recently decided on plans to teach middle school English.
My point is that it takes a lot for me to be so disgusted with a book that I want to immediately discard it. But that is the effect Loaded Dice had on me when I listened to it.
Last month I read — well, listened to — Mr. Lucky, also written by James Swain. I had conflicted emotions about that book. The characters were not well developed and seemed more like caricatures or stereotypes than real people.
What makes Swain’s books compelling, though, are not the characters but the casino cons and schemes he describes. Swain’s resulting style in these books reminds me of advice I once heard at a journalism writing seminar. The writing coach said that in long feature stories it is sometimes a good idea to leave gold coins — choice quotes or anecdotes — to reward a reader for staying with the story. The descriptions of the clever cons and scams kept me going despite frustrations with the book’s characters and wooden dialogue.
I decided to try another book by Swain, Loaded Dice. The main character in both books is Tony Valentine, a retired Atlantic City cop who is keeping busy after his wife’s death by working for casinos around the world. They hire him to spot and stop cons and scams.
Much of Loaded Dice involves Tony trying to find his son with whom he, of course, has a difficult, complicated relationship. You see, Tony did what all good fathers do – he sent his son to card counting school where, of course, he got into trouble for putting some of those lessons into action.
Having these two, both in Las Vegas, missing each other’s phone calls soon grows old.
I am debating now how to describe my biggest hang-up with this book without ruining it for those who may read it. Ok, let’s try this: If you plan to read this book, stop reading here and don’t come back until after you finish.
(** Warning: Potential spoiler ahead)
Still reading? Good. Don’t say I did not warn you.
There are few things more clichéd in our post-Sept. 11 culture than stereotypes of Arabs. I have written before about how much I hate prejudice, discrimination and just plain bad writing. So when I came across an Arab character early in this novel, and then, later in the book, two more important Arab characters I hoped the writer would not add to the problem. I thought to myself, “Please don’t take the cheap, easy, stereotypical route with these characters.”
Without giving too much away, let me just say that I am very disappointed in Swain. If the cons he described were as tired and obvious as his characters’ motivations, they would all easily be stopped.
Instead, what is going to stop is my interest in reading his novels. The last 50 pages of the book were the worst, most clichéd writing I have read in years. I have seen Disney cartoons that are less predictable. Heck, just when I thought it could not get any better, Swain actually describes a swarm of locusts descending, as if we readers would not be able to catch on to more subtle symbolism.
If Swain wrote a book that was solely about the great cons and scams he so ably describes here, I’d read that. But I’m giving up on further reading of his attempts at fiction.