Alson is 33 and listless. "At Harvard, a short story of mine published in the Advocate had been mentioned in the Crimson as evidence that literature was alive and well on campus." Now he is a magazine journalist, accepting a ride to a friend's beach house on Long Island, a "sleek, bored-looking blonde" sitting in the back of the Saab, when a way of making more money suggests itself to him. Alson's driver runs an illegal bookmaker's, sucking in phone bets on baseball and American Football, fixing the odds and pocketing the fat percentages. With barely a pause, Alson agrees to work for him.
It does not promise great drama. The small rituals of gambling are surely hard still to pass off as "outlaw", and Alson's prose, hedging between the dry male dialogue of David Mamet and the designer-cataloguing of Brett Easton Ellis, suggests a long 200 pages ahead. "When the phone rang," he writes with deadening clumsiness early on, "It was like a shot of adrenaline to my heart."
Then Alson walks up five flights of stairs, knocks sweating on a tenement door, and alters the book completely. His fellow bookies are hot, bitter and immediately alive: a surly blond boy in a Malcolm X cap, a broker bored of Wall Street, a vast and gentle soul called Bob who is learning the guitar as a new personal "plateau". In five-hour shifts they shout odds and scrabble at telephones, take wagers in code and heap scribbled slips in boxes, even offload bets to bookies in the Dominican Republic when too many customers favour one side or another.
Alson finds his subject in the bookies' ebb and flow. Not that he is much impressed, at first, by their "verbal towel-snapping". He stumbles among the age-old arcana of point spreads and juice and "the vig" (the commission on losing bets) with a refreshingly bad grace. He gets callers' code names wrong; his pencil-work is too slow; he is shouted at, and fantasises entertainingly about his colleagues being caught while he is out on a delicatessen errand: "They'd be criminals I was watching go off to jail. And I'd be a guy holding a bag of sandwiches."
But Alson's attention, like his abruptly better writing, fixes on the bookies' crammed apartment. Every effort to continue life outside, or supplement his few hundred weekly bookmaking dollars, serves only to draw him more firmly in. He has lunch with an editor from Esquire to discuss a gambling article, and the editor asks to lay some bets with him instead. He starts writing a film script with a friend, and the friend suggests a bookie as the protagonist. By now, Alson has stopped laughing at the "bizarre bookie sitcom" and eats steak dinners with "the whole crew". His long-distance girlfriend fades away.
Like the court officials in The Trial, Alson grows used to, then reliant on, the bad air of his new life. Meeting his dad, still phone-selling at 73, he realises that lots of legally employed people are breathing it too. Steak Knife and Monkey and Alson's other bosses start to seem paternal, with their flash suits and jokes and sudden money-throwing. Then, just as a good climax demands, their enemies close in. Alson doesn't hide his disappointment; by the end, he convinces you, the praise of uncle Norman is no substitute for the tingle of a bookie's phone.