The strange ways of internet commerce have meant that countless secondhand books can be bought online for £0.01 plus postage. The Dabbler will be recommending some of the out-of-print, forgotten or neglected gems that can be yours, at the time of writing, for a penny.
No-one’s ever written a perfect book have they? Jonathan Rendall hasn’t, but he’s written a couple of very good ones, and in improbable circumstances too. His first, a boxing memoir called This Bloody Mary Is The Last Thing I Own (a line spoken to him by a man in a bar in Las Vegas after a Frank Bruno fight), carries jacket blurbs from Tom Stoppard and Tom Wolfe, won the Somerset Maugham prize and is by some distance the best book about boxing I’ve read. His second, Twelve Grand, is finer still and to be frank, it’s a disgrace that you can buy it for 1p because Jonathan Rendall is an artist and 1p is no sort of a price for art.
Twelve Grand began as a stunt book. Rachel Cugnoni, the publisher at Random House’s sports imprint Yellow Jersey, wanted to give a writer an advance in the form of stake money for gambling. The proviso was that the entire sum, the Twelve Grand of Rendall’s title (yes, twelve grand is the sort of money they give you – a bloody scandal, isn’t it, considering the work they’re asking for…), had to be gambled and the narrative of the bets turned into a book. If the writer stayed ahead, they kept the winnings; if they lost, then the book must still be delivered.
Rendall realizes immediately that a) he is not the first writer that Rachel has contacted, and b) that the offer is a sucker bet in itself. So he does what any proper writer would do in the circumstances: he takes the money and writes whatever he wants, which in this case is a lovely, melancholic, autobiographical novel based around a flailing, boozy writer trying to capture some of the self-destructive beauty of a gambler’s life.
Twelve Grand is a mood piece; it has to be, because it covers a lot of ground. Early on, he visits a short-lived theme park built by Noel Edmonds; later he’s in Mexico and Vegas at the scenes of old sins and old affairs. You need great control of tone and form to hold elements like that together cohesively. As for the money, well he can’t get rid of it quickly enough. There’s a tremendous little scene where he buys a new suit from the backroom of a shop, and another as he lies to Rachel about the bets he’s supposedly placed. In the beautifully realised and downbeat ending, he catches perfectly the gambler’s real psyche – the one that non-punters just don’t get – when he wins big on a Lennox Lewis fight and is repulsed by the rolls of notes in his pockets. The narrative voice becomes more and more spare as his state of mind slips and splays, but you’ll be right there with him as it does.