Things are rotten in the state of Thunderclap. Or at least they are rotten for the people who wash up at the remote, desert Indian casino somewhere in the mountains inland of San Diego in Jim Ruland’s masterpiece of desperation, delusion and misdeeds, “Forest of Fortune.”
Meet: Pemberton, a recovering alcoholic, drug addict and ad man who goes to the reservation for a job at the Thunderclap Casino. It’s his last chance to pull his life together.
Meet: Alice the traumatized Indian slot-tech who might be having grand mal seizures or might be experiencing visions. Either way she risks losing her mind or her job or both unless she can figure things out.
Meet: Lupita the successful slot junkie who plays (and usually wins) slots at Thunderclap and whose adulthood rivalry and tension with her younger sister haunts her past and present.
Get to know the supporting cast of misfits, crooks, junkies, tweakers, gambling addicts and thugs — Denise, Mike, O’Nan, D.D. and the rez-gangsta-rappers of Red Dawn — as they scheme, play, talk, screw and struggle against odds that seem insurmountable.
Most of all meet: the Loot Caboose — a malignant slot machine seemingly intent on stealing the souls of the people with whom it comes into contact; souls none of them can really afford to lose. But then again, all the characters of “Forest of Fortune” seem to have forgotten the cardinal rule of gambling: Don’t play what you can’t afford to lose. At Thunderclap no one plays with anything else.
And watch as they struggle, lurch, play and spin toward a casino apocalypse (casinocalypse?) to end all others.
Ruland (who for a period in his life worked an Indian casino) brilliantly taps the fundamental irony of casinos to urge his story along: Casinos sell the drug of possibility (I might hit the jackpot) in exchange for desperation. That is, they buy poverty (emotional, moral, material) and sell it as wealth or at least sell the story of wealth. Ruland has made the most of that by hanging his characters’ fates on chance, whims, rather than on plot.
There is a plot, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t one driven by choices and situations and decisions. (I should say there is a slightly underdeveloped mythic parallelism at work in the book: What is happening to the characters might well have happened before in the tribal long ago. But I, for one, was grateful that Ruland didn’t develop this too much.) This might be annoying in a different novel, but it works well here and makes for a satisfying read. One can’t help but hope that the paylines line up for these characters. That a couple of them make it out alive is gratifying.
In terms of prose there is a hard-boiled feel to “Forest of Fortune” — or at least hard-stewed. Pemberton, especially, comes equipped with all sorts of one-liners and comebacks reminiscent of Hammett and Chandler and Ellroy. Ruland has a great ear for the lazy patois of desperation. This ability is on raucous display in the conversations between D.D. (a derelict drug dealer, felon and barstool philosopher) and Pemberton. Yet the language is not careful, not spare, and doesn’t sound polished. The careful glittering craft-jewel language of an MFA-er would be as out of place in this book as an actual careerist would be in a casino like Thunderclap.
Ruland is writing, after all, about the agonizing mismatch between dreams and needs and casinos, which pretend to meet those needs and make those dreams come true but often at a terrible price. The prose is in perfect step with the rough chance the book trades in.
Treuer’s most recent book is “Rez Life.”
Forest of Fortune
Tyrus Books: 288 pp, $24.99 paper