Monday, November 8, 2010

Jerusalem Poker by Edward Whittemore

For comments on Sinai Tapestry, book one of the Jerusalem Quartet click here.


A twelve year poker games comes to a close, ending with the three who first began it. The stakes are nothing less than complete control of Jerusalem's underworld. However, from start to finish this game is rigged and the pot inconsequential.


Just as its predecessor Sinai Tapestry did, Jerusalem Poker spurns conventional storytelling and what many—myself included—would deem to be of paramount importance: a central plot. However, don't call the novel flawed; the differences are not a bad thing.


Two new primary characters get introduced in this volume to Whittermore's already huge and wildly varying cast. Cairo Martyr is a black Moslem with plans on repaying the Arabs for there centuries long involvement in the slave trade by stealing Kabba. Cairo's cousin, Munk Szondi is not only a Wallenstein, but also the connection of all the Middle Eastern based characters to the eastern European and Asian ones.


The character connections are endless, and always enthralling. Making the connections is part of what the book is primarily occupied with. Concerning current events very little is ever said. We learn of Cairo's mentor Menelik Ziwar (Strongbow’s life-long best friend) a living mummy who never leaves his sarcophagus, and how Cairo has ground Egypt's pharaohs of old to dust and made a fortune in selling them for their aphrodisiac qualities in addition to being a cure-all for any aliment. But once he makes his fortune and states his long term life plans, very little is said of what is presently happening in Cario's life.


Munk's background is perhaps a bit more developed. We puzzle out his connection to Skanderberg Wallenstin, come to grips with his phenomenal military career, and learn of his exile from his family in the most intense and amusing knitting scene you'll ever read. We see how 'The Sarah's,' the female portion of his family that owns the greater oil wealth of the middle east try to buy back the Ottoman empire from Strongbow--whom they didn't even know bought the empire to begin with. It's all as beautifully bizarre as it sounds.


Much more is learned of Strongbow as Whittemore incessantly dwells in the past. The poker game all but has Strongbow's stamp of approval: it is played in the room he wrote his thirty-three volume treatise on Levantine sex, his sundial erratically chimes midnight at any time of the day confusing the players, and the scarab that has been used by Strongbow and his son Stern to smuggle just about everything in an out of Jerusalem presides as co-games master, sharing the honor with Haj Harun.


If the story had to be distilled in to a central element, for me, it would be the growth and development of Joe O'Sullivan Beare whose father, with the gift of prophecy, proclaimed him to be the future King of Jerusalem. There is no conventional plot or point of conflict that all events build toward and yet there is forward motion and things never become stagnant or feel bogged down. Joe has problems claiming what is 'his' until he can bring other events to terms he can understand. He knows where the Sinai Bible is and has known for twelve years; yet can't bring himself to uncover it just yet. He knows where Maud is, his one-time wife and mother of his child but won’t go to her; he knows about his children and finally does get to see half of them. The final chapter where he meets his son for the first time is perhaps the most moving and flawed. Bernini, O'Sullivan's son, is nothing more than a vehicle for some of O'Sullivan's beautiful reminisces on his life. Bernini prompts his father with the right questions and proper indulgences however, he's is far too intelligent for his age. This issue becomes larger as we learn of Bernini’s learning ability being slower than other kids his age. It's a unique passage--as is the book--where upon completion you wouldn't change a thing due to the summation of the affect it has on the reader.


The Levant at large is again the main character as we see Jerusalem, Egypt, Greece and many other locales in a way that makes you believe they have to be exactly as Whittemore uses them. If ever this part of the world needed a tour guide or travel agent to attract interest Whittemore would have been the best choice.


Quasi fantastic elements return and as in Sinai Tapestry many of these events surround Haj Harun, who among other things, recalls the story of Daniel in the lion's den before the event actually happened. He also leads us to underground Jerusalem where a few ghost or possibly real people are still living; Masons from the times of the first crusade. It is on this trip to underground Jerusalem that Joe finds his one-thousand year old cognac bottles that he drinks his poteen from. The fantasy elements are never dwelled nor elaborated upon and the effect is a glancing confusion of ' is this real or not?' which is probably exactly what the author intended; a brilliant display of less is more. Cairo also experiences a good bit of the supernatural being a mummy tomb robber. Whittemore, who was ever in possession of a dark sense of humor seems to shine in these scenarios. Nothing here will haunt your dreams but leaving you laughing with wonder and thinking, 'What the hell just happens?' The only exception to the reality bending absurdity would be Haj Harun, himself; who, the more he rambles, the more believable to the reader it becomes that he is a three-thousand year old defender of Jerusalem.


We learn of his phenomenal sexual exploits with a Persian princess centuries ago. As if we weren't already sympathetic to Haj, either for his lunacy or curse of living three thousand years, we learn that real heroes, like dents in a helmet, 'go unnoticed' and this knowledge cast a somber cloud of reflection on the reader when thinking of all the characters you will come to love in the novel. Furthermore, Haj may not be the only near immortal character around, other than the ghost of Jerusalem's' past, Haj alludes to at least two others who have been around for a few thousand years.


A complaint would be a similarity in characters voices; which is particularly bad considering the wildly diverse characters in the story. Outside of Joe saying 'Jaysus,' and speaking in broken Gallic--and at times broken English--and starting to ramble as much as Haj, there isn't a great deal of distinction in characters voice until we get to Nubar.


Nubar is dying of anal syphilis, and a nasty mercury addiction that isn't helping either. Not only does he carry on the Wallenstein family tradition of mental instability and some unhealthy sexual habits, he ups the ante with advanced alcoholism, and self imposed starvation. Hyper acute paranoia, obsession, and dementia all make for an interesting personality, but his role in the novel remained a question to me. He feels the Sinai Bible is his by rights as his grandfather forged it, further more he thinks it is the equivalent of the philosopher’s stone. He is a comic, chaotic display of epochal mental instability, but otherwise a diversion from O'Sullivan Beare, Cairo and Munk.


The women of Joe's life get more interesting as we come to understand why Maud left both a paradise in Jericho and O’Sullivan Beare (who outside of being an extrodinarily successful criminal is an exceptional family man). She left without saying goodbye or with Joe ever being able to hold his first born son; without a word or letter as to where she went. In understanding her past history of people walking out of her life she panicked and left before Joe could ever dream of leaving her. Maud aside, it is Theresa that is perhaps more complicated and in need or greater help, and considering where Maud is mentally that is saying something. Whittemore's female characters are absolute psychological nightmares; but they serve a purpose other than tormenting themselves: they all seemingly get to torment Joe.


Most central to Joe’s development is his relationship with Stern. Stern is vulnerable, that is why people like him; that is why he is a morphine addict. Joe is the opposite despite all he's been through in his life he is solid. The only outward affect of his life's troubles is his drinking: an insatiable habit that has lead him to home-brew. Joe always wishes he could meet one of the great figures of the 'past' as his 'place' isn't solidified and he can't appreciate his life’s achievements.


Joe and Stern try to patch things up twelve years removed from Greece and World War One. Stern is tormented by the eight-year old girl he had to kill. She desperately asked, "Please" and the word has haunted Stern ever since. It goes unsaid that it was supposed to be Joe to do the deed, but the man who had killed virtually everything that's ever lived froze and Joe couldn't do it. Joe was too mad at himself, his life and the world to deal with the situation. Stern acted out of terrible mercy. The two try to reconcile events they never should have lived through but ultimately can’t.


All characters have problems relinquishing the past and it impedes them in the future, (Sterns inability to make new friends, or rekindle with Joe, Maud preemptively leaving Joe, Joe constantly recalls the 'Black and Tans' of Ireland and his inability to get over his past life to get out of his position in his current life), this is why Whittemore dwells on Strongbow and Wallenstein as they provide solid paths for the reader to follow while we try to navigate the unpredictable world and the amazing characters Whittemore has living in it.


Jerusalem Poker is a book that will certainly benefit from re-reading. It’s not an easy piece of fiction to get through but it is one of the more satisfying novels I’ve yet to come across and one that few who've read it will be able to forget.


No comments: