The Ponzi Man by Declan Lynch review: magnificent Grand Guignol horror
A gambler’s morality tale has a similar emotional pull to the best of John le Carré
Declan Lynch. Photograph: Julien Behal
The Ponzi Man
In their manual of mental disorders, the American Psychiatric Association listed problem gambling as an impulse control disorder, analogous to compulsive hair-pulling and pyromania, until as recently as three years ago. It has now been upgraded to addictive disorder status, up on the top shelf now with drink and drugs. A global financial crisis can help to focus a mind.
But writers have been shouting the odds, if you will, on problem gambling for centuries back. Charles Dickens wrote of Ponzi schemes in two of his novels – Martin Chuzzlewit and Little Dorrit – and by a happy coincidence got the idea to do so from a real-life Irish conman, one John Sadlier, a garrulous chancer, once a household name, who confessed to “numberless crimes of a diabolical character causing ruin and misery and disgrace to thousands – nay, tens of thousands”.
It’s fitting then that the literary baton has been passed to Declan Lynch who goes fast, high and strong with The Ponzi Man. We come across his anti-hero, John Devlin, sipping slow pints of Guinness in a seaside town they forgot to close down. During the Tiger years, Devlin was a financial genius, simply because “he was very good at something most people are bad at”: gambling.
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Because his investors – the cream of Irish society (yes, rich and thick) – just wanted to make an awful load of money without working, Devlin (who bought his first house in Dublin after three good days gambling at the Cheltenham Festival) throws some of their money into shopping centres in Berlin and apartment complexes in Miami. The bulk of it, though, he gambles on “online poker, horses, football, golf and baseball”.
As Devlin rightly points out, gambling is only a disease when you lose. Houses in London, Manhattan and the south of France attest to his gambling genius, and why stop when, of a Monday morning, you could put €40,000 on the result of a football match in Iran simply because it is on? “They’ve never been able to make anything as good as the stuff that’s already inside you, waiting to be activated,” says Devlin about the opiate-like rush he gets from gambling.
But over those slow pints of Guinness in the town of his youth, this morality play unfolds in its full Grand Guignol horror. He has had a bad run and then he starts chasing. He has lost everything belonging to friends, millions in total, and he is soon to stand trial and is looking at a lengthy custodial sentence.
And that’s just the beginning. Despite the fact that Devlin is “not interested in exploring the origins of addiction
– it doesn’t matter to me any more” – and that he is living in a mildewed caravan with only his cashmere jumpers between him and the winter cold, he has one last gamble to make.
He could go to local Gamblers Anonymous meetings, “with their talk of a higher power, cups of tea and fuckin’ Marietta biscuists”, which would impress the judge and maybe reduce his sentence; or, with “the gambler’s vast capacity for hope”, he could go online and, using his considerable skills, try to make some of losses back again and mitigate the damage.
Devlin has that all-important desire to stop; it’s just a bit inconvenient here that he also has that equally important desire not to stop.
What happens next you’ll have to read for yourself; suffice to say that it’s a very skilled ending indeed. As is all of this magnificent novel.
The coastal town Lynch writes about makes you shudder in recognition: the 99s, the cans of Harp, the pull on a Carroll’s Number One at the back of the amusement centre, the tar melting on the road in high summer and the gazing into the deep blue flame of the Super Ser in the caravans.
Most notable, though, is the way The Ponzi Man has a similar emotional pull to John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, the novel that elevated its author from the status of page-turning spy-thriller practitioner to a begrudging acceptance by the literary establishment.
Both novels deal with how much honesty a human being can stand. Both use a non-linear narrative to understand a present malaise in the context of seemingly past happiness. And both explode the myth of “social values”.
Most people know the beginning of the famous Henry David Thoreau quote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, but they don’t usually know the end bit, “and go to the grave with the song still in them”.
And John Devlin is a great singer.
Brian Boyd is a music journalist