She Knows the Score

by Kelly McMasters ’05SOA
Lay the Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling
By Beth Raymer
Spiegel & Grau, 228 pages, $25
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Most readers will feel the same way. The narrator is thoroughly likable. She is honest, she is funny, she adores her dog. She is also hyper, fickle, and, as a boyfriend says, a flight risk. More than anything, though, she is adrift. The reader rejoices when this carefree and caffeinated loner finds her footing in Dink’s merry tribe, especially since, by this time, it is clear that her own family is in ruins — parents disagreeably divorced, sister in rehab.

In fact, Dink, Inc. is so much fun, we almost forget the doubtful morality of gambling, the details of which Raymer expertly parses in engaging and entertaining prose. “The first lesson I learned was that while it may be illegal to be a bookmaker, it is not illegal to gamble for a living,” she writes. “The second lesson was that despite the tens of thousands of dollars in bets he made each day, the money Dink bet was always his own.”

But things get progressively darker when Raymer moves to New York and Dink sets her up with a new boss, the 370-pound food-and-figures addict, Bernard. He is what Raymer calls a cannibalistic gambler. “Sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, he sat in front of his computers booking bets, making bets, calculating sixteen-team-if-reverse-round-robins in his head and taking advantage of the very large, very liquid, no-risk betting opportunities created by the Internet.”

After working for Bernard on Long Island, Raymer follows him to Curaçao when he decides to take advantage of loose regulations for Internet bookmaking in the Caribbean. There, the veneer of her new profession’s harmlessness rubs away, as do Raymer’s scruples. “Congress, criminal complaints, prison camps: these were just abstract words to me. The money was what stuck. The two-hundred-thousand-dollar days; the fifteen-million-dollar months. The numbers these men were netting were as supersized as their chauffeur-driven Hummers, eight-thousand-square-foot compounds, and Costa Rican girlfriends’ newly implanted double-D silicone breasts.” In a land where “prostitution was legal and McDonald’s delivered,” Bernard’s group believed they’d found paradise.

Bernard imports a crew of men from the States to round out the locals in his employ, and their domestic lives — grocery lists, dinner with the wife, kissing the kids good night — quickly invert as they adjust to a new workaday reality of wild sex with beautiful women, mountains of cocaine, and no rules. Raymer watches with a gimlet eye, reminding us that these aren’t just strung-out slobs or characters, but real men with real lives they are gambling away. When Bernard’s business implodes, Raymer returns to New York, determined to make a legit life — but gambling’s magnetic pull on her is too strong. She is soon working as a small-time bookie, sending her clean-cut Columbia University boyfriend on money drops and pickups. Of course this is all illegal, and when a customer can’t pay up, she realizes that she’s put the person she most cares for at serious risk.

Cue sappy music and the moment of change, right?

Not exactly. Throughout Lay the Favorite, Raymer rails against the cheats who steal from her bosses. In the end, Raymer makes a startling choice, one that involves a first-class plane ticket, a bikini, and fun in the sun with someone else’s money. The surprise is not so much the fact that she isn’t above corruption, but that she doesn’t seem to see the irony or tragedy in it.

One of many strengths of Raymer’s strange and beautiful book is the way her gaze cuts so deeply and cleanly into the hearts of her characters. Yet in the end, she doesn’t use that same laserlike vision on herself. Indeed, the thieving masseuse’s words about Raymer being “one of us” become prophetic.

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