Sunday, June 28, 2009

Returning to Earth

"It's the stupid hope of getting something for nothing that corrupts people." ~ Donald Burkett, in Jim Harrison's Returning to Earth, commenting on gambling.

This weekend I started reading Jim Harrison's compelling sequel to True North called Returning to Earth. It's the story of a half breed Chippewa-Finnish man dying of Lou Gehrig's disease, told in first person by both himself and his wife.

All the great novelists aspire to writing something with a timeless significance that expresses something more than the pedantic day-to-day. You can tell from the start that Harrison has succeeded in creating a story that will compel us to face the big picture questions that torment the private spaces of human hearts. That's the real achievement of the great books, to create a context for exploration of these deeper life issues.

Harrison's earlier novellas include the silver screen achievement Legends of the Fall, starring Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt, a story bigger than life and revealing of both its expanse and depth.

While listening to the unabridged audio version of the book this quote about gambling jumped out at me. I would say it "jumped from the page" if I were reading a regular book, and upon hearing it I pulled over to write it on a scrap of paper as a start point to this sequence of thoughts.

Gambling is a great deception. Donald Burkett learned this early in life, after a significant losing hand. It is not a central theme in the book, mentioned only in passing, but it is a sharp insight. How is it that our tax dollars, then, are being used to promote this deceptive tactic by advertising lotto, Powerball games, state lotteries and the like? Should not the government be on the side of truth and virtue? It's shameful and sad that our own tax dollars are being devoted to studying human behavior to determine which games of chance will most successfully pull greenbacks out of poor peoples' wallets, for it is the poor and ignorant who are most vulnerable to these enticements.

Where is the outrage? Why do our leaders claim to be on the side of the poor while simultaneously supporting an activity that preys on their false hopes and is mathematically arranged to insure that they lose?

Have you ever met anyone who bought a house with winnings from gambling? I have known two who lost their homes from gambling losses. One was through a Saturday night bingo habit which led to bankruptcy.

I have a friend who says the purpose of Powerball is to make poor people less hateful of the rich, because if they win the Powerball they will be rich at some point. The notion strikes me a bizarre, but maybe there’s something to it. No one likes being hated, and that probably applies to the rich and powerful as much as anyone. Giving a poor man the hope that he might be a peer someday, even if it’s a false hope, just might be the ticket.

As for Jim Harrison, the setup is good and I look forward to finishing my read.

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