Gambol through life's gamble

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Jonathan Rendall is a rare journalist who infuriates you because he can write so sensitively and persuasively about boxing, which is barbaric and has no place in modern society. This, though, is not Rendall on boxing but being a tease, offering fiction dressed up as fact. The cover notes contain a stumbling effort to make you believe that it could all be true.

The book begins beautifully and ends as confused as the dissolute main character. All (all?) we are asked to accept is that during a period of literary and financial uncertainty, which happened to coincide with his decline into life-threatening dependence on booze, the subject of the novel (for that is what it is) got a call from a publisher who offered him pounds 12,000 to go gambling. For anyone who has ever dealt with publishers, whose advances to all but the most profitable writers rarely exceed the cost of a trip to the races without a bet thrown in, that in itself was the first hint that Rendall conceived the whole thing. But, as mentioned, he can be wonderfully persuasive. His opening description of an encounter with a doctor is sensational... much of the rest seems to be the alter ego rambling of someone who has come close to self-destruction.

The result of the offer to provide the stake money for a spin around the tables of Vegas, or for staying at home and betting on televised racing while opening another bottle is sub-titled The Gambler As Hero (Yellow Jersey Press, pounds 10) and until it becomes a series of diary-style notes speckled with abbreviations, it serves Rendall well in his career transfer from sports writer to novelist (a pitch too far for many).

Quite what happened to the pounds 12,000 gets subsumed in a sequence of cameos about life beyond the betting shop: of love affairs in America and childhood memories of visits to Epsom Downs. The publisher proposed that the money should be an advance. Except, as Rendall writes, a normal advance can be invested entirely at the author's discretion. In the case of his fictional writer's one previous advance that meant spending it on "booze, fags and travel costs" which had "consumed" 100 per cent.

This time only the winnings would be dispensed as an advance, the rest was supposed to go wholly on bets. "Of course I had the chance, thanks to my 12 grand stake, to make far more than the normal advance." The publisher agreed to his request to let him have four grand every month for three months.

Why only three months? Because he had not mentioned that if he continued to hit the bottle as bruisingly as he had before, his doctor could not guarantee that he would be alive for long after that.

Obviously, the temptation was to "leaf off the readies" for everything apart from betting. After all, he knew that his main addiction was not betting. But he did place bets on the horses suggested by Walter, a friend who said only "fritterers" risked less than 500 to win. For a moment he thought he was going to cover the pounds 12,000 in a couple of weeks and pocket all future winnings.

Thereafter, the story is diverting, not to say lost in pages of lines like: "Thght about surprs. bg-win lmp-on bets to avoid embarr. arousal", until finally it returns to mention a comparatively slim wad of pounds 500 and a trip to Newmarket where the outcome of one bet leaves no choice but to go home and start a book of his own.