Paul Auster (Moon Palace, The Invention of Solitude, and The New York Trilogy) has written his big book, and it's scarcely 200 pages long, but as Pete Seeger once said about folksinger Woody Guthrie: ''Any damn fool can get complicated. It takes genius to attain simplicity.''
With only a handful of characters, some gothic trimmings, and a premise as easily summarized as a Bruce Willis movie, The Music of Chance tackles all those serious themes that American novelists aren't supposed to be good at anymore: fate, loyalty, responsibility, the nature of evil, and the real meaning of freedom. Yet the story, so fast, so tricky, and so fiendishly well- crafted, offers all the great guilty pleasures of popcorn fiction.
Paul Auster's hero, Jim Nashe, is a 33-year-old Boston fireman with a penchant for reading Dickens and a passion for playing Schubert and Fats Waller on the piano. Shortly after his marriage breaks up, Nashe inherits some money. Equating money with freedom, and freedom with the open road, Nashe hits the highway. He drives for a year, sleeping in motels, eating at diners, living in the present, and burning his bridges as profligately as he burns gas and oil. Eventually, his cash reserve dwindles, and he's confronted with the dilemma of what to do, and who to be, once it's all gone.
But then, serendipitously, he picks up a vagabond named Jack Pozzi (''My friends call me Jackpot''). Young, scruffy, and genially egotistical, Pozzi turns out to be a gambler in desperate need of a stake. Seems he's been invited to play poker with a couple of reclusive oddballs, an optometrist and an accountant dead ringers for Laurel and Hardy who recently won $27 million in the Pennsylvania lottery.
Then oh, but you think you heard this story before? The older guy lends the younger guy the money, right? And the younger guy loses it all, right? Right. Every dime, and then some.
But here's where Auster gets sneaky, and where things turn unpredictable, and sinister. ''Laurel and Hardy'' refuse to let Nashe and Pozzi leave their secluded Bucks County estate until the poker debt is paid in full. Under the watchful eye of an armed ''foreman,'' they're put to work building an absurd wall of 10,000 stones. Freedom is suddenly no longer just a word in a pop song or a hamburger jingle. And bad luck becomes as real, and thwarting, as an electrified fence. ''You tampered with the universe, my friend,'' says Pozzi to Nashe, ''and once a man does that, he's got to pay the price.'' The price, as both men ultimately learn, is exorbitant.
A thriller with a conscience, The Music of Chance is one of the best American novels of the year. A