Sol Fox spent 16 years as a compulsive gambler, and as far as can be discerned from his autobiography, he never had any fun at it.
Now 67, Fox has looked back over his life in an attempt to find out why he spent the years between his early twenties and his mid-thirties obsessively churning the ground between his job, the racetrack or nearest bookmaker and the moneylenders. After a hundred or so pages filled with pop psychology, puzzled introspection and marred insights (such as attributing the decline of the Green Bay Packers to the team's luck having run out), you might expect some real conclusions.
You also might expect a sordid but exciting life story from a high roller, but this isn't it. Early on, our hero eschewed everything but horse-race betting, giving up high-stakes poker after being cleaned out in a pot-limit game in Cincinnati, and never taking to the forms of gambling that include peripheral bright lights, brassy music, velvet ropes, dinner jackets and brushed, scented blond hair. Fox preferred to do business in a horse room with a sheetman (bet taker) or at the track, where he pretty much kept to himself and the Daily Racing Form, his bible.
And there wasn't even the big-time excitement of being chased down and threatened by loan sharks or of robbing a bank to get the money to gamble. For much of the time he was a gambler, Fox worked as a reporter and rewriteman at the old United Press in New York City, and he estimates that in his pursuit of riches via the nags he spent a little more than half of what he earned, which couldn't have been more than $50,000, during his 16-year unrequited romance with Lady Luck.
Our poor man's high roller even makes being shot down over Romania and becoming a prisoner of war sound tame. His autobiography takes us from his Brooklyn upbringing to his war service to college to the United Press and then, after he stopped gambling, into business, without breaking a sweat. Each period of his life is punctuated by a little essay on what was going on in the world at the time, with subjects like Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Kefauver hearings, the Spanish Civil War and the Cold War, just, I suppose, to lend a little verisimilitude, so we know he was there.
So much is not in this book. Fox's father and mother split up, and this becomes the central fact of our gambler's psychology: He blames not having the protection of a father for virtually everything bad that happened after that, although most of what happened bad had largely to do with one horse or another crossing the finish line when it was not supposed to. But we are never told exactly why the father and the mother split, or exactly what the father did afterward, except, one day, die. We know only that Sol Fox fell into what appeared to be a lifelong pattern of self-pity, rationalization, greed, lying, self-centered fear and projection of the grandiose.
Curiously, the very banality of Fox's life during his gambling years makes this a valuable and important book. He tells us practically nothing of his work, either as a reporter or in his later business life (except for a detailed account of his duties on his first job, in the promotion department of a chain of movie houses in Cincinnati), which provided him with the money he needed to gamble. Of his women we know little, except that he bought some and had shallow relationships with a few and took money as loans from several, feeling guilty about that, too. His favorite meals were names of dishes on menus.
What comes through are two things: the feelings of fear and impending doom and guilt and anxiety that Fox had when he was about to bet or after he had won or lost or was in the middle of projecting either a win or a loss; and the fact that the young man who decided to become a horse player had essentially no values -- spiritual, intellectual or moral -- to support him when his compulsion arose and took him over.
Here, then, is an aging horse player, who just stopped because he grew up, despite himself. He had no particular insight into why he stopped three decades ago, except that he wanted to be married to a woman who didn't want him to gamble.
As with most things done for motives that are slightly askew, the marriage didn't last, and Fox still had no particular sense of why he didn't gamble anymore. He left me with the impression of having been a lazy boy who grew up to be a lazy man who wanted something for nothing. So with "Thinking Big," he's at the starting gate again, and has taken that challenge he must have heard so many times: "Sol, you ought to write a book about all that."
I'd give Remaindered about 5 to 4.