If Paul Newman wins the Best Actor Oscar tomorrow night, he'll owe a part of it to Walter Tevis.
It was Tevis who wrote "The Hustler," the 1959 novel that became the basis for one of Newman's most popular films. And it was Tevis who brought his pool hustler back to the page in a 1984 sequel, "The Color of Money," the book which led to the movie which led to Paul Newman's second Academy Award nomination for playing the role of Fast Eddie Felson.
Unfortunately, the movie "Color of Money" takes nothing from the book but its title and the premise of Fast Eddie's return. The question of whatever became of Eddie Felson after his legendary matchup with the great Minnesota Fats is answered much more interestingly in Tevis' novel, a terrific book that bears oblique parallels to its author's own life history.
Born in San Francisco in 1928, Tevis was 31 when "The Hustler" was published. His next work, a striking science-fiction novel titled "The Man Who Fell to Earth," appeared four years later; eventually it too became a well-regarded film.
Then, for 17 years, Tevis published no more books. From 1965 to 1978, he made his living as a professor of English at Ohio University. Like his own Fast Eddie Felson, he followed early triumph with nearly two decades of obscurity.
The reason, Tevis said in later interviews, was a serious drinking problem--one he eventually licked. In 1980, he returned to print at age 52 with "Mockingbird," a haunting science-fiction tale set in the ruins of a 24th-Century Manhattan. Two years later came "The Queen's Gambit," an equally marvelous and completely different novel about a female American chess prodigy in the 1950s and '60s.
Tevis was himself a chess player, and "The Queen's Gambit" knowledgeably conveys the tensions and excitements of that game. But you don't have to know chess to be drawn into the book, any more than you need to know pool to enjoy "The Hustler." "Gambit" isn't about chess, really; it's about an alcoholic teen-age genius learning to survive. All Tevis' protagonists, pool hustler to space man, struggle against great odds to fulfill individual potential. Tevis makes you care about his quirky characters. You see yourself in these losers/winners, and you root for them.
Tevis brought out a collection of science-fiction stories, "Far From Home," in 1981. "The Steps of the Sun," another futuristic novel, was published the same year as "Queen's Gambit." And then he turned once more to the story of Fast Eddie Felson. There's a pleasing symmetry in Tevis, having impressively revived his creative life, now allowing the character who made his reputation in the first place to return for another shot at his own brass ring.
"The Color of Money" begins with Eddie Felson journeying to Florida in the summer of 1983 to convince a retired Minnesota Fats to join him in a series of exhibition pool matches backed by a low-rent Kentucky cable outfit. Fats is living off money-market funds, photographing roseate spoonbills among the mangrove. Fast Eddie is emerging from a failed marriage and 15 years of running a pool hall. "It wasn't any good at all," Eddie says of his life since the '60s. ". . . We drank too much and bought things for the house and every now and then we had a fight. I went out to the poolroom every morning and brushed down the tables and put out fresh chalk and after a while I was 50 years old."
With Fats' prodding, Eddie labors to regain his skills and standing in the world he's left behind, a world that's changed dramatically. Straight pool is passe, he learns; the real action now is in nine-ball. But Fats says, "You're not ready for nine-ball, Fast Eddie." So Eddie hones himself on the simpler game of eight-ball, playing local favorites for money in Southern bars. Down the road beckon high-paying tournaments and a perfection of skill that approaches a state of grace. Here and now are doubt and fear and the daily possibility of failure.
"You sat on your talent for 20 years," author Tevis has Eddie's new girlfriend rebuke him. Eddie shoots back, "I'm not sitting on it now."
"The Color of Money" is a great read, entertainment of a high order. Before it was even sold to a publisher, it was put into Paul Newman's hands. The novel itself came out as a paperback from Warner Books.
"We could have had a hardcover deal," says Aaron Priest, Tevis' agent for the book, "but Warners seemed to think they could turn a sequel to 'The Hustler' into a big mass-market original that would ultimately make a lot more. And Walter said, 'Let's take the money.' He figured he didn't need the credentials of hardcover publication. He'd had great reviews on 'Queen's Gambit.' He was confident he'd write other books."
But he did not. Tevis, a heavy smoker, succumbed to lung cancer. "The Color of Money" was published Aug. 1, 1984. Walter Tevis died eight days later, at age 56.
In what would stand as his final work, Tevis recorded these night thoughts of Eddie Felson on the nature of his special calling: "Pool players were often cheats and liars, petty men whose lives were filled with pretensions, who ran out on their women and walked away from their debts; but on the table, with the lights overhead beneath the cigarette smoke and the silent crowd around them in whatever dive of a billiard parlor at four in the morning, they had to find the wherewithal inside themselves to do more than promise excellence. Under whatever lies might fill the life, the excellence had to be there. It had to be delivered."
Tevis had that wherewithal, and he climbed back from whatever personal abyss to make good on his younger promise. He cut it close and waited nearly too long, but he delivered the excellence.
Walter Tevis wrote like a dream, and he told some wonderful stories. May his hard-earned books continue to find the readers who deserve them.
NEXT WEEK: Elizabeth Mehren, The Book Trade.