The Burning: A Novelby Thomas Legendre
In an engrossing novel about fate, luck, and obsession, a struggling academic from Philadelphia marries a beautifully dangerous Vegas blackjack dealer, and when his controversial theory about economics is put to the test, his entire life is put on the line.See more details below
In an engrossing novel about fate, luck, and obsession, a struggling academic from Philadelphia marries a beautifully dangerous Vegas blackjack dealer, and when his controversial theory about economics is put to the test, his entire life is put on the line.
- Little, Brown and Company
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.25(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.25(d)
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The BurningA Novel
By Thomas Legendre
LITTLE, BROWNCopyright © 2006 Thomas Legendre
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSure, it was Vegas, but he wanted to step outside. He walked over to the sliding doors and parted them wide open, tasting the heat as it swelled over him-a tang in his mouth that took him by surprise, like the flavor of someone you've just kissed. He leaned on the railing. The metal glowed against his forearms, branding his skin. He smiled. This was what he wanted. The surfaces near him radiating. A fever in all the concrete and pavement. Everything touched with fire. He took a deep breath, but then his chest seized up and he started coughing with his head dropped below his shoulders, seasick-tourist pose. Yes, this is what he wanted. This is humanity on the aggregate scale. This is what you want, this is what you get.
By the time he looked up again his eyes were weak and watery and he had to work his gaze slowly outward: The railings. The stucco. The guitar angled toward heaven with its pulsing red fret and sky-blue body, its golden lights flaring over the parking lot. There were palm trees stretching their necks above the great pink plains of the rooftops, construction cranes in the distance with warning lights blinking at their extremities. Another casino was visible-a mock-up of the New York skyline featuring a Brooklyn Bridge, an EmpireState, and a Statue of Liberty all clustered together and out of proportion like a scene inside a paperweight. He coughed again. The sun had disappeared, but the horizon still glowed like a hearth. He tried to restore the place to naked desert in his mind but didn't know what sort of plants or animals to resurrect. What things lived in the mountains over there? Fading now. Parched, barren, sharp-edged. He was in the Mojave Desert, he was in Las Vegas, and his lungs were burning with exhaust and the churned-up dust of construction, the city doing its usual heavy breathing. But he didn't know that. His name was Logan Smith and he had just earned a Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Pennsylvania and he wasn't going to sleep in his hotel room tonight. But he didn't know that either.
"It screams, doesn't it," a voice said behind him. "It makes you want to do everything."
Logan glanced back. Deck had emerged from the bathroom freshly showered and shaved, his hair spiked gently with a dab of gel as if it just happened to turn out that way.
"Why do I suspect," Logan said, thinking it was going to be funny until he was halfway through the sentence, "that your everything is different from mine?"
"Blame Prentis. He needs love and attention tonight." Deck came over to the railing and gripped it with both hands, like he was testing its strength. "And why don't you join us. The marginal utility of your first purchase always exceeds the price. Give it a try, Dr. Smith."
This was the joke, already wearing thin, since graduation last week. But Deck liked to get mileage out of his wit. He was angular, finely muscled, a slight stoop to his shoulders that came, it could be said, from adapting himself to the company of smaller people. His mouth went slightly crooked whenever he spoke, like he was telling you a wry and delicious secret.
"I've been socking away cash for the past six months," he said. "Slowly, you know, so I didn't really feel the drain. This is all free."
"I can't see any casinos besides that New York thing."
"The Strip is that way," he said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. "And anyway, forget the other casinos. You want to know the best one? You're standing on it. This is the place. I won't even mention the ladies across the street. A thirty-second walk. Throw away your car keys."
"So why did we rent a car?"
"Try it, you'll like it."
Logan shifted his gaze back toward New York. A few hours ago he had made the mistake of confessing that he had never been to a strip club. Now it was like having a salesman in his living room. "Really, Deck. Why the car? That was a five-minute drive from the airport, and half of it was traffic lights."
Deck touched his wrist to his forehead, blotting the first signs of perspiration. "Insurance," he said. "We want to be perfectly flexible. You never know what you might want to do."
"Or what Prentis might want to do." Logan squared his shoulders and felt a dewy moisture inside his shirt. It felt good. Of course, part of the enjoyment, he had to admit, came from seeing Deck refuse to acknowledge how much the open doors bothered him. As if it would be too much of a confession.
"You see the growth figures for this place?" Deck asked. "Fastest-growing city in the country. I'd love to see how much per capita GDP this place carries on its back. Feel the blood pumping. Low unemployment, high wages, a cost of living index smaller than your shoe size. The price of a house ..." He trailed off when he saw Logan reaching into his pocket again for that slip of paper. "You don't have to memorize it, for Christ's sake."
Logan frowned at the numbers. "You're sure this is legal? I see myself being dragged outside and thrown into a car with a bunch of mobster-types for a little ride in the desert, if you know what I mean."
"Please, Dr. Smith. That's the old Vegas. It's all clean and corporate now."
Logan scrubbed a hand through his hair-dark, woolly, prone to Afro if he let it grow more than a couple of inches. It resisted all attempts at alteration. Even Emma, his most recent girlfriend and an amateur hairdresser to boot, had failed to make a change that didn't clash with his broad nose, his permanent tan-which, she and Logan had agreed, was the obvious result of a tryst or two buried with one of Mom's ancestors back in South Carolina. Not that either of his parents would acknowledge it. They claimed it was a rogue Italian gene. Logan, on the other hand, simply wondered if love-or, at the very least, consent-had been a factor in the equation.
He folded the scrap of paper and stuffed it into his pocket. "So if I follow the Basic Strategy, it maximizes my chances of winning."
"It's the cruise control of blackjack. Set it on the table next to you. Or burn it and ask the dealer when to hit, split, double, whatever. He'll tell you the same thing. What you have there is a strategy based on the mathematical probabilities. It's the odds. It's the law."
"But what if I don't -"
The door opened and slammed shut behind them. "Love well, whip well, as Ben Franklin would say. You won't believe what the cocktail waitresses are wearing."
This was Prentis Blewster: loud-mouthed, blunt-nosed, his face half-lit with the expression of someone who laughs loudest at his own jokes. He sold weather derivatives to companies interested in hedging against climate risk, which meant that he traded and leveraged options that were worth a certain amount of money to ski resorts for below-average snowfall and to ice cream stores for rainy summers. He and his co-workers were the only people in the East Coast financial markets who kept copies of the Farmer's Almanac in their desks. It should be emphasized, however, that what he sold wasn't insurance. This was high-voltage stuff. Or at least as high-voltage as you could get in Philadelphia.
He came up behind them and draped his arms over their shoulders. "I'm thinking about the time zones and realizing it's way past dinnertime."
Logan resisted a burlesque impulse to shrug off Prentis's arm before he turned and went to his duffel bag. There was a minute or two of coordination- a change of shoes, an inventory of his wallet-before he was ready. As he followed Deck into the hallway, though, he remembered the jug of springwater he had bought at a convenience store on the way to the hotel. It was still sitting on the front seat of the car. Heating up, probably. He went back into the room and grabbed the key from the bedside table. He'd bring the jug up to the room after dinner. He had heard things about the tapwater in Vegas. Faulty treatment systems. Traces of gasoline and excrement in the pipeline from Lake Mead.
The sliding doors were still open. The air outside was simmering, the traffic thrumming. The guitar pulsing brightly in the dusk. He crossed the room and lingered there for a moment, gazing at the city's costume jewelry. This happened, he thought, every single night. He closed the doors and glanced at a framed photo of Jimi Hendrix over the bed-the Monterrey shot of him kneeling in front of his burning guitar, squirting lighter fluid on the flames. It would be funny to sleep under that.
Deck and Prentis were already a few strides ahead of him in the hallway, joking about the cymbals shading the light fixtures, the g-clefs and quarter notes patterned in the carpet. Logan caught up with them at the elevator. There were a couple of ashtrays next to the doors with the casino's logo stamped into the powdery white sand, utterly pristine and odorless, as if the last thing that belonged there was a cigarette.
Prentis ran a finger through it. "It's like sugar."
Deck smiled and looked over at Logan for a moment of simpatico, but was met with a subtle frown instead. Oh come on, Deck thought. Give it a rest. Did he really expect anyone to believe he didn't want to go to a strip club? Deck would have to spell it out during dinner: This wasn't real. It didn't mean anything. Nobody back in Philadelphia would ever find out about this. They were just three anonymous guys in Vegas for a couple of days, and whatever happened here, stayed here. It was no accident, for example, that Deck didn't spend much time with Prentis in Philadelphia. He recognized a social liability when he saw one. But a liability in one place can be an asset in another. In Vegas, the guy was a spark plug. He got the engine running. It was easy enough to break away whenever you felt like it, especially if women were involved. You simply apologized for your friend's bad behavior and it made you look even better than you would have looked alone.
The elevator doors opened to a pumping, keyboard-sweetened melody that synchronized the movements of everyone who heard it. A processed voice singing about love. They stepped into an interior of fake leopard skin and smoked glass.
Deck arched an eyebrow. "Elevator music."
"You know what Freud said about elevators, boys."
"You've read Freud?" Logan didn't want to sound like a snob, but this was too much.
"My mom's a shrink. Don't ever tell me your dreams."
The elevator lurched to a halt. The music stopped. The lights went out. They tried to look at each other to gauge their reactions, but it was like floating in some lonely corner of the universe where light simply didn't exist.
"I'm patient," Prentis said. "But let me tell you this happened to me once in Chicago and it turned into a night of ill-will."
"Was that the time -"
"Trapped with a ladyfriend, yes, indeed. I politely suggested we do the transaction right there instead of in my room. Oh, the words that came out of that mouth."
OK, Logan had made a mistake and it went like this: A couple of days after defending his dissertation he had wandered into Taps, the local grad-student hangout, to shake off his post-partum depression and set his lack of job prospects in the proper perspective, at which point he ran into Deck, who had also defended his dissertation and was flying to Vegas, he said, for two nights of celebration. Was Logan interested? Cheap flight. Free hotel room. Extra bed. Or at least floor space. It had seemed like the sort of silly and extreme thing he needed. But he hadn't known about Prentis.
"You ever hear from Eastfield?" Deck's voice.
"Um, no." It seemed like a strange time to bring up the job search.
"Don't feel bad. A.E.A. was a funeral this year. Nobody got second interviews."
Logan turned toward Deck-or, rather, where he thought Deck was standing. "How about you?"
There was a pause. "Two interviews next week. Eastfield and Dalton. Sorry."
"I didn't know you applied to Eastfield."
"They came to me. They're looking for someone in Micro and Econometrics."
Of course they were. Everyone was. Deck's dissertation had examined the effects of point-of-sale ATM purchases on individual consumption functions, using data derived from 126 subjects who, for some reason, didn't mind having their checking accounts scrutinized. His analysis was clear-cut, convincing, and, Logan thought, entirely predictable. It combined relevant econometric models with a measure of innovation just large enough to create the impression of originality without the threat of its actual repercussions. Members of Deck's committee had smiled at several points during his defense. The handshakes afterward had been vigorous.
The air was getting stale. Logan closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again he couldn't see any difference.
Prentis's voice rose up suddenly. "Hey, what's your dissertation about?"
Logan knew this was meant for him. "Adam Smith."
"Who's that, your uncle?"
"He was the one who wrote -"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. I was joking."
"The topic isn't just Adam Smith," Deck said, apparently on Logan's behalf, "but a careful examination of Smith's argument in The Wealth of Nations to expose an inconsistency in his theory of self-interest. You know that line about the butcher and the baker."
"And the candlestick maker?" Prentis barked out a laugh. "Is that grad school or pre-school?"
"'It is not,'" Logan recited, "'from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.'"
Deck slipped into a pseudo-English accent. "Dr. Smith performs a rigorous analysis of the text to show that Uncle Adam didn't, in fact, believe self-interest excluded benevolence, as the previous quote suggests. Uncle Adam was sloppy in that one section, you see. But that's the section everyone reads. His words have been taken out of context and misused ever since." He resumed his normal voice. "How's that?"
"Bravo," Logan said.
"So he ..." Prentis seemed to be struggling with a thought. "So he's saying that Smith was wrong?"
"I don't actually say he was wrong. I say he was inconsistent and contradictory. A lot of current economic theory has been derived from Smith as if his points about self-interest are perfectly cogent. But they're not. Most of the text indicates that benevolence is the guiding principle of people's behavior and that self-interest has only a limited role in social and economic relations."
"And, besides, what Smith means by 'self-interest' is entirely different from what we mean when we use the word today."
"So you're saying -"
"He's saying," Deck said, jumping in again, "that the very foundation of economics is flawed. But it's all between the lines. You should read it. It rocks."
Just then everything came back to life-lights, music, elevator-and they jolted with the sudden movement. The feeling after an outage of having not only power, but senses restored. A new song came from the speakers.
"Yow! We're back, boys, and I like what I see." Prentis did a swing of the hips, Elvis-style, and pointed at the smoked glass, where they all stood reflected. "We look like real citizens."
Logan blinked and tried to follow Prentis's thought. If by "real citizens" he meant the Three Stooges, then he was probably right. Deck went for an urbane look with a bright blue shirt and pleated charcoal pants, while Prentis wore the middle-manager-on-vacation uniform of collared shirt, jeans, and sneakers. Logan, by contrast, had chosen an earth-toned shirt from Morocco that Emma had given to him for his birthday last year. The truth was that he rarely risked shopping for his own clothing. The failures were too frequent and deep. Instead he let the women of his life dress him and he accepted their taste without question. If you arranged his closet in chronological order you'd see the taste of each successive girlfriend displayed in the strata, like the Earth's history in layers of rock. He was that easy. He was the kind of guy who stayed in touch with his ex-girlfriends. There were e-mails, postcards, occasional phone calls to inform of engagements and pregnancies. They had found men with solid careers. He understood the need.
Excerpted from The Burning by Thomas Legendre Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Legendre. Excerpted by permission.
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