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The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats: A Newcomer's Journey into the World of Bridge

Edward McPherson, Harper-Collins, 2007

Let's start this review with some fiction.

4:00 PM, the night before: “Can I borrow your son?” It's Aunt Cappy, the one who has short hair and plays the ukulele. “It's about Stanley.”

“Um, what about Uncle Stan?”

“Well, his group is all busy, and I really don't want him out alone.”

While Aunt Cappy is a lively little old lady, the kind usually described as “perky”, Uncle Stan is a near-enigma. Old, very old, he was in the Navy, then worked for The Power Company, now he's retired, but still plays golf and fishes. For as long as you can remember Aunt Cappy has lived with him, though what their real relationship is, you can't really tell, only that she's just a bit younger, and neither one of them seems carnally interested in each other. But they're old. Stan had a son, who left the family in the early Seventies after a falling out. Now he's out West somewhere.

You're about twenty, and the son in question. Cappy and Stan live in a parallel universe, as far as you know, one where they read Reader's Digest and vote Republican and listen to elevator music. Heck, they even smoked cigarettes until a few years ago. You're into alternative rock, video games and hanging around the skate park, and you want to spend the weekend with your girlfriend Wendy. You decide to swing by after dinner, and have her talk you out of it.

9 PM, the night before. Oddly, Wendy is downright ecstatic at the idea. “Just think. He's seen history. You might learn some family secrets. He's probably got a lot of wise...well, wisdom.”

“What kind of family secrets?”

She tells you about a book, or was it a movie? where this girl was taking care of an old woman, and found her aunt was her mother...or was it vice versa? “Anyway, he might be hipper than you think. You don't know anything about him. He might...smoke pot, or be gay!”

“Beautiful. He might try 'moing me. Anyway, he's not gay.”

“How do you know? He was in the Navy! Besides, you can fight him off. He's old.”

Golf is no big deal. Tiger Woods plays golf. Maybe you might even like it.

She gives you a kiss, and a phat bud for being such a great guy.

8:30 AM. You show up at Aunt Cappy's and she gives you a kiss. “You're going to do just fine.” Uncle Stanley has the size and voice of R. Lee Ermey, and he doesn't seem too impressed by you, although he's not unfriendly. “Make a real man of him.” he says to Cappy.

“Be sure to come back by six. The Mulvaneys are going to be over.”

You notice there's no golf clubs in the car.

“It's too hot for golf.” Stan says. “We're going fishing. Now where's that package store that opens early?”

9 PM. You figure maybe you'd like to learn to fish. Fish is healthy, and now it's going to be cheap, too. He gives you something easy: bottom fishing. You're sure to catch something, he says, even if it's just a flatfish or an eel. He starts the motor, and drives the Boston Whaler out into the harbor. He puts a piece of sandworm onto your line.

9:30 AM. He hands you a beer, and turns on the elevator music. You sit. You wait some more. You ask about the Navy, and he tells you he was in it. You ask about his son out West, and he's still out West. He tells you a dirty joke you first heard in middle school. You get a nibble, but the fish got away. You rebait and feel stupid.

11 AM. You catch a fish! One that looks like an atomic mutant, that makes a croaking sound, that Stanley tells you is a “sea robin, not big enough to eat”. (You couldn't imagine eating it, at any size.) You release the fish. He hands you another beer, and you feel your camaraderie soar when you both take a piss over the side of the boat, and then you think about him 'moing you, and laugh it off.

12:30 PM. You both decide to go back to the marina and have lunch. The other old guys joke about getting the sea robin. One of them gives you a cigar. “Make a real man out of you.” They tell you to enjoy the cigar.. You go back out into the harbor.

2:30 PM. You are now officially bored. The past hour, you've been counting all the songs on the radio that have something to do with France, Paris or New Orleans, vs. the ones that have something to do with Latin America or Spain. (They're pretty evenly matched.) You drink more beer, and realize that getting more drunk just makes you feel more bored. You say something non-committal about pot and get just the kind of answer you'd expect.

3:00 PM. You're now so bored you wish he would 'mo you, just so you'd have something to do. You decide to smoke the cigar. This turns out to be a mistake, what with the hot weather, beer, motion sickness, and a full stomach....Stanley thinks this is hilarious.

4:30 PM. With less than a half-hour to go, you catch...a fish! A flounder, actually, and not too large. It looks like a Picasso painting, but at least it's edible. He's caught at least a dozen snapper blues. Unfortunately, by now, you can't stand the thought of eating anything, much less fish.

6 PM. Finally, the two of you drive home. Aunt Cappie gives you a kiss and tells you that you've been “just great”. You say you're going to take a shower and lie down. “Touch of sun.” Stanley says, and you take Alka-Selzer, Pepto-Bismol, and brush your teeth. As you lie down and contemplate smoking some of the pot, while hearing Cappy tune her uke, one thought drifts into your mind.....

….you aren't even gonna try golf!

This book is like that (not that I have anything against fishing or golf, or even bridge). It's just that it tries too hard. Time after time, I read of how wonderful this or that elderly/rich/expert bridge player is, how charming, how unexpectedly sprightly! Bridge is so great! Mahatma Gandhi played bridge! And Dwight D. Eisenhower! And now, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates! For you hipsters out there, Sting! and Radiohead!

Wow! It does everything but make me feel like...playing bridge.

Part of the problem is that modern contract bridge is based on auction bridge, which is based on whist. While it's easy to explain to even a smart six-year-old the hierarchy of poker hands, and even Chess isn't too hard to play badly, it's much harder to kind of wade into Bridge. It doesn't computerize well, the way Chess does, requires a flesh-and-blood partner, preferably one with whom you've got a playing, if not a working relationship. You have to learn a lot of conventions, how to get tricks, sometimes out of thin air, and tons of technical stuff, and then play, a lot, before you do anything much more than bore a regular player.

The 'story' of the book is one that is now fairly formulaic: young, struggling author living in New York City (preferably Brooklyn or Manhattan) wants to make money with a book, decides to spend a year doing some improbable activity (following everything the Bible – or Oprah Winfrey – says, not buying anything other than food, living without anything invented after 1945) and then finding that they not only like living this way, but Something About Themselves, and perhaps, the reader might find the same true about themselves, too.

In this case, it's Bridge, and he finds Tina, his partner. Tina is a tiny live wire of a woman, the kind that takes zillions of courses and listens to Pacifica radio, the perfect woman for a strong, yet platonic relationship. In many ways, this book is a love story, how they went from meeting to their first National Tournament. In between, he interviews bridge players from Las Vegas to London, mostly older, well-heeled, and oh, so very very nice, that it's kind of like being trapped in the World's Largest gift-card-and-candy store with no way out (Garrison Keillor could make this fly, but then, he's a genius, and even he gets a little dull after awhile), tells about the history of the game, details the somewhat spookier corners of bridge history (several murders), the wild subculture of bridge caddies, and so on. There's not much more to say, except that it seems all very interesting and exciting at first, and you figure you might, just might start getting interested in the game, but...there's not much more to it. The ending is so anticlimactic that you might as well not read the last chapter at all, for all the suspense he's tried to build up. No transcendent revelations, no changes of heart, nothing except...perhaps sometimes the old are just that...old, and things that are passing out of our world are just...past.

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