IN A STORY by Aldous Huxley, an ancient artist named Eupompus "sought order through numbers." The driven visionary covered vast canvasses with thousands of identical tiny swans, and his followers sought salvation by counting them.
The search for order obsesses many of us, particularly when adversity exhausts us with its unfairness. It was on such a search for order that Bill Barich set out for Golden Gate Fields racetrack, a place where the day's history is distilled into numbers and where, if the numbers are read correctly, the following day's history can be profitably foretold. At such moments the music of the spheres, that harmony indicative of divine balance, can be heard in the distance.
Barich went to the track with the weight of personal loss in his heart and a $500 bankroll as fuel for the vessel which was to carry him on the unmarked course to logic.
One of the fascinations of racing, to those who seek a sense of order through its mathematical permutations, is the fact that the seeker can control, through the size of his bets and the degree of their risk, the extent of commitment. There are pensioners at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas who play strong choices to finish in the first three and happily collect, more often than not, $2.20 for their $2 bets. They see life as a series of tiny bites of pleasure with, through failed favorites, an occasional worm or stone for variety.
There are men and women who are Eupompianly convinced that somewhere there are the ultimate magic numbers, and if they bet long enough, count enough swans, they will find them. Since every winning day convinces such people that the formula has been found, they are fearlessly all out the next day and lose all, down to the last dollar they can desperately dig up.
I remember a man giving me, as earnest of deep friendship, a graduated betting system he had developed through endless nights in bleak rooms with only a reading light and a racing form for company. In the system one moved up and down a ladder of varying sums -- steps going up after unsuccessful choices, steps back down for wins -- their numbers determined by the extent of the win. Only a prolonged losing streak could defeat the follower of this plan, and looking at the glowing eyes and frayed trouser cuffs of the donor, I realized how much he really did like me and how little use I would ever make of his gift.
Barich read more than the form in his cell at the Terrace Motel. He seems to have spent many hours searching the chronicles of the Renaissance, that period when order was to be found through art and architecture, for clues to the scores that the spheres are supposed so beautifully to play.
Discoveries from his historical reading alternate with discoveries about the present state of humanity, gathered by rich, or given to him in the little world bounded by the backstretch of the track and the bar which became a clubhouse for racing regulars.
Though he found neither ruin nor riches in his betting operations, Barich found reason to believe that he had not the relentlessness which is essential to the nature of winners. At that break-even level, which the young despise and the old greet with gratitude, he returned to the wife who had patiently kept the home fires burning while he was out looking for something to ease the pain of his present and of his perceived future.
Laughing in the Hills is an odd and patchy book, sometimes seeming a simple instructional manual on the ins and outs of thoroughbred racing, sometimes a cry of pain quickly to be stilled by a salve of scholarship or an account of Wednesday's fifth race or Thursday's third.
Barich is too young to accept the weary wisdom which says that there is no order save whatever one we create as a cloak against the chill of nothingness -- that idea put with somber succinctness by George Santayana when he said "There is no Saviour and Mary is his mother."
Barich is not too young to write with the sure balance of one who loves words and knows how to string them so that we find pleasure in following the string.