The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats: A Newcomer's Journey into the World of Bridge
Edward McPherson, Harper-Collins, 2007
Let's start this review with some fiction.
4:00 PM, the night before: “Can I
borrow your son?” It's Aunt Cappy, the one who has short hair and
plays the ukulele. “It's about Stanley.”
“Um, what about Uncle Stan?”
“Well, his group is all busy, and I
really don't want him out alone.”
While Aunt Cappy is a lively little
old lady, the kind usually described as “perky”, Uncle Stan is a
near-enigma. Old, very old, he was in the Navy, then worked for The
Power Company, now he's retired, but still plays golf and fishes. For
as long as you can remember Aunt Cappy has lived with him, though
what their real relationship is, you can't really tell, only that
she's just a bit younger, and neither one of them seems carnally
interested in each other. But they're old. Stan had a son, who left
the family in the early Seventies after a falling out. Now he's out
You're about twenty, and the son in
question. Cappy and Stan live in a parallel universe, as far as you
know, one where they read Reader's Digest and vote Republican and
listen to elevator music. Heck, they even smoked cigarettes until a
few years ago. You're into alternative rock, video games and hanging
around the skate park, and you want to spend the weekend with your
girlfriend Wendy. You decide to swing by after dinner, and have her
talk you out of it.
9 PM, the night before. Oddly, Wendy
is downright ecstatic at the idea. “Just think. He's seen history.
You might learn some family secrets. He's probably got a lot of
“What kind of family secrets?”
She tells you about a book, or was it
a movie? where this girl was taking care of an old woman, and found
her aunt was her mother...or was it vice versa? “Anyway, he might
be hipper than you think. You don't know anything about him. He
might...smoke pot, or be gay!”
“Beautiful. He might try 'moing me.
Anyway, he's not gay.”
“How do you know? He was in the
Navy! Besides, you can fight him off. He's old.”
Golf is no big deal. Tiger Woods plays
golf. Maybe you might even like it.
She gives you a kiss, and a phat bud
for being such a great guy.
8:30 AM. You show up at Aunt Cappy's
and she gives you a kiss. “You're going to do just fine.” Uncle
Stanley has the size and voice of R. Lee Ermey, and he doesn't seem
too impressed by you, although he's not unfriendly. “Make a real
man of him.” he says to Cappy.
“Be sure to come back by six. The
Mulvaneys are going to be over.”
You notice there's no golf clubs in
“It's too hot for golf.” Stan
says. “We're going fishing. Now where's that package store that
9 PM. You figure maybe you'd like to
learn to fish. Fish is healthy, and now it's going to be cheap, too.
He gives you something easy: bottom fishing. You're sure to catch
something, he says, even if it's just a flatfish or an eel. He starts
the motor, and drives the Boston Whaler out into the harbor. He puts
a piece of sandworm onto your line.
9:30 AM. He hands you a beer, and
turns on the elevator music. You sit. You wait some more. You ask
about the Navy, and he tells you he was in it. You ask about his son
out West, and he's still out West. He tells you a dirty joke you
first heard in middle school. You get a nibble, but the fish got
away. You rebait and feel stupid.
11 AM. You catch a fish! One that
looks like an atomic mutant, that makes a croaking sound, that
Stanley tells you is a “sea robin, not big enough to eat”. (You
couldn't imagine eating it, at any size.) You release the fish. He
hands you another beer, and you feel your camaraderie soar when you
both take a piss over the side of the boat, and then you think about
him 'moing you, and laugh it off.
12:30 PM. You both decide to go back
to the marina and have lunch. The other old guys joke about getting
the sea robin. One of them gives you a cigar. “Make a real man out
of you.” They tell you to enjoy the cigar.. You go back out into
2:30 PM. You are now officially bored.
The past hour, you've been counting all the songs on the radio that
have something to do with France, Paris or New Orleans, vs. the ones
that have something to do with Latin America or Spain. (They're
pretty evenly matched.) You drink more beer, and realize that
getting more drunk just makes you feel more bored. You say something
non-committal about pot and get just the kind of answer you'd expect.
3:00 PM. You're now so bored you wish
he would 'mo you, just so you'd have something to do. You
decide to smoke the cigar. This turns out to be a mistake, what with
the hot weather, beer, motion sickness, and a full stomach....Stanley
thinks this is hilarious.
4:30 PM. With less than a half-hour to
go, you catch...a fish! A flounder, actually, and not too large. It
looks like a Picasso painting, but at least it's edible. He's caught
at least a dozen snapper blues. Unfortunately, by now, you can't
stand the thought of eating anything, much less fish.
6 PM. Finally, the two of you drive
home. Aunt Cappie gives you a kiss and tells you that you've been
“just great”. You say you're going to take a shower and lie down.
“Touch of sun.” Stanley says, and you take Alka-Selzer,
Pepto-Bismol, and brush your teeth. As you lie down and contemplate
smoking some of the pot, while hearing Cappy tune her uke, one
thought drifts into your mind.....
….you aren't even gonna try
book is like that (not that I have anything against fishing or golf,
or even bridge). It's just that it tries too hard. Time after time,
I read of how wonderful this or that elderly/rich/expert bridge
player is, how charming, how unexpectedly sprightly! Bridge is so
great! Mahatma Gandhi played bridge! And Dwight D. Eisenhower! And
now, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates! For you hipsters out there,
Sting! and Radiohead!
It does everything but make me feel like...playing bridge.
of the problem is that modern contract bridge is based on auction
bridge, which is based on whist. While it's easy to explain to even
a smart six-year-old the hierarchy of poker hands, and even Chess
isn't too hard to play badly, it's much harder to kind of wade into
Bridge. It doesn't computerize well, the way Chess does, requires a
flesh-and-blood partner, preferably one with whom you've got a
playing, if not a working relationship. You have to learn a lot of
conventions, how to get tricks, sometimes out of thin air, and tons
of technical stuff, and then play, a lot, before you do anything much
more than bore a regular player.
'story' of the book is one that is now fairly formulaic: young,
struggling author living in New York City (preferably Brooklyn or
Manhattan) wants to make money with a book, decides to spend a year
doing some improbable activity (following everything the Bible – or
Oprah Winfrey – says, not buying anything other than food, living
without anything invented after 1945) and then finding that they not
only like living this way, but Something About Themselves, and
perhaps, the reader might find the same true about themselves, too.
this case, it's Bridge, and he finds Tina, his partner. Tina is a
tiny live wire of a woman, the kind that takes zillions of courses
and listens to Pacifica radio, the perfect woman for a strong, yet
platonic relationship. In many ways, this book is a love story, how
they went from meeting to their first National Tournament. In
between, he interviews bridge players from Las Vegas to London,
mostly older, well-heeled, and oh, so very very nice, that it's kind
of like being trapped in the World's Largest gift-card-and-candy
store with no way out (Garrison Keillor could make this fly, but
then, he's a genius, and even he gets a little dull after awhile),
tells about the history of the game, details the somewhat spookier
corners of bridge history (several murders), the wild subculture of
bridge caddies, and so on. There's not much more to say, except that
it seems all very interesting and exciting at first, and you figure
you might, just might start getting interested in the game,
but...there's not much more to it. The ending is so anticlimactic
that you might as well not read the last chapter at all, for all the
suspense he's tried to build up. No transcendent revelations, no
changes of heart, nothing except...perhaps sometimes the old are just
that...old, and things that are passing out of our world are