The Last Samurai

Overview

Moving, funny and startlingly original, The Last Samurai has been sold in fourteen countries and is destined to become a cult classic. Ludo, age six, is a prodigy. His mother, Sibylla, raises him alone and tries hard to keep his voracious intellect satisfied, while she struggles to make ends meet. With her exasperated guidance, he teaches himself Greek, so that he can read The Odyssey, before moving on to study Hebrew, Arabic, Inuit, and Japanese. And both Sibylla and Ludo share a passion for Kurosawa's Seven ...
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Overview

Moving, funny and startlingly original, The Last Samurai has been sold in fourteen countries and is destined to become a cult classic. Ludo, age six, is a prodigy. His mother, Sibylla, raises him alone and tries hard to keep his voracious intellect satisfied, while she struggles to make ends meet. With her exasperated guidance, he teaches himself Greek, so that he can read The Odyssey, before moving on to study Hebrew, Arabic, Inuit, and Japanese. And both Sibylla and Ludo share a passion for Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, which they watch repeatedly, absorbing its lessons of Samurai virtue. Soon Ludo embarks on a quest to find his father, and approaches seven men to test their mettle. Each of them—prominent, powerful, or flawed in his own way—has to rise to a unique challenge.

An intellectual tour-de-force, playful, multi-layered, but wonderfully readable, The Last Samurai is full of stories of remarkable exploits, tables of Japanese grammar, snatches of Greek poetry, passages of Icelandic legend, and ingenious math problems. But it also has a rare emotional depth, as the little boy's search for a father, or even a man heroic enough to be his father, gradually reveals a new and unexpected dimension of love. And at the book's heart is the relationship between Sibylla and Ludo, which is moving and oddly memorable in its fusion of solidarity, frustration, and tenderness.

About the Author:

Helen DeWitt was born in Takoma Park, Maryland. She started a degree at Smith College and dropped out twice, the first time to read Eliot and Proust, the second time to go to Oxford to study classics and philosophy. She now lives in England.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
It's tough to say who's more of a genius: young Ludo, the Odyssean hero of The Last Samurai; his teacher/mother, Sybilla; or his creator, first-time novelist Helen DeWitt. Ludo is a feisty six-year-old with a talent for languages who, inspired by Akira Kurosawa's classic film Seven Samurai, sets off in search of his father. A totally unique contribution to contemporary literature, DeWitt's debut is a powerful tale of self-discovery that is at once intellectually challenging and profoundly moving. And while The Last Samurai proves at times to be a difficult read, it is an experience that will linger in your mind and heart long after you've finished the book. Highly recommended.
Seattle Times
One of the outstanding first novels of 2000...inventive...a wonderfully drawn portait of a complicated relationship between a mother and her brilliant young son...
Time Magazine
Dazzling...an original work of brilliance...
The Boston Globe
The Last Samurai may be the find of the season. I loved the confident velocity as well as the promise of heady unconventionality. The spell sustained itself. Within pages I found myself caught up in the strangest and most gratifying intellectual novel I've read since Norman Rush's Mating and Nicholas Mosely's Hopeful Monsters...crisp and vivid...The Last Samurai is very much the story of an education, an arduous discovery of self...
—(September 24, 2000)
Washington Post Book World
...a brilliant debut novel...keeps things moving at an exhilerating clip...DeWitt is formidably intelligent but engagingly witty...she is a joy to read.
ѿ(September 17, 2000)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
DeWitt's ambitious, colossal debut novel tells the story of a young genius, his worldly alienation and his eccentric mother, Sibylla Newman, an American living in London after dropping out of Oxford. Her son, Ludovic (Ludo), the product of a one-night stand, could read English, French and Greek by the age of four. His incredible intellectual ability is matched only by his insatiable curiosity, and Sibylla attempts to guide her son's education while scraping by on typing jobs. To avoid the cold, they ride the Underground on the Circle Line train daily, traveling around London as Ludo reads the Odyssey, learns Japanese and masters mathematics and science. Sybilla uses her favorite film, Akira Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai, as a makeshift guide for her son's moral development. As Ludo matures and takes over the story's narration, Sibylla is revealed as less than forthcoming on certain topics, most importantly the identity of Ludo's father. Knowing only that his male parent is a travel writer, Ludo searches through volumes of adventure stories, but he is unsuccessful until he happens upon a folder containing his father's name hidden in a sealed envelope. He arranges to meet the man, pretending to be a fan. The funny, bittersweet encounter ends with a gravely disappointed Ludo, unable to confront his father with his identity. Afterward, the sad 11-year-old resumes his search for his ideal parent figure. Using a test modeled after a scene in Seven Samurai, he seeks out five different men, claiming he is the son of each. While energetic and relentlessly unpredictable, the novel often becomes belabored with its own inventiveness, but the bizarre relationship between Sibylla and Ludo maintains its resonant, rich centrality, giving the book true emotional cohesion. Foreign rights sold in Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the U.K. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
DeWitt's first novel revolves around Sibylla, an American displaced in London, and her young son Ludo, both geniuses. Sibylla earns a bare living typing for mundane periodicals like Carpworld and International Cricketer, grudgingly squeezing her assignments between viewings of Kurosawa's classic film, Seven Samurai. Ludo, who has been reared on this film, decides to use the challenges it presents to find his own mysterious father. When he is disappointed with the real thing, he searches for a more acceptable candidate. The last half of the book is very readable and beautifully written, as Ludo discovers that perhaps the perfect father is nonexistent. Overall, however, the excessive display of erudition obstructs DeWitt's wonderful use of language and imagination. After spending too much time either trying to understand her rhetoric or skipping pages loaded with arcane languages or mathematical theories, readers may find it difficult to persist.--Patricia Gulian, South Portland, ME Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
New Yorker
A triumph— a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form, which has more to offer on every reading but is gripping from the very first.
Myla Goldberg
Exuberant . . . DeWitt is eager to display her intellectual and artistic gifts. It is easy to be carried along by the tempo of her prose . . . At its best, the writing is playful and engaging.
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
In a witty, wacky, and endlessly erudite debut, DeWitt assembles everything from letters of the Greek alphabet to Fourier analysis to tell the tale of a boy prodigy, stuffed with knowledge beyond his years but frustrated by his mother's refusal to identify his father. Sibylla and five-year-old Ludovic are quite a pair, riding round and round on the Circle Line in London's Underground while he reads the Odyssey in the original and she copes with the inevitable remarks by fellow passengers. Sibylla, an expatriate American making a living as a typist, herself possesses formidable intelligence, but her eccentricities are just as noteworthy. Believing Kurosawa's Seven Samurai to be a film without peer, she watches it day after day, year after year, while in the one-night stand with Ludo's father-to-be, she wound up in bed with him for no better reason than it wouldn't have been polite not to, although subsequently she has nothing but scorn for his utterly conventional (if successful) travel books. Ludo she keeps in the dark about his patrimony, feeding him instead new languages at the rate of one or two a year, and, when an effort to put him in school with others his age wreaks havoc on the class, she resumes responsibility for his education, which, not surprisingly, relies heavily on Kurosawa's film. As Ludo grows up, however, he will not be denied knowledge of his father, and sniffs him out—only to be as disappointed with him as his mother is. Hopes of happiness with the genuine article having been dashed, Ludo moves on to ideal candidates, and approaches a succession of geniuses, each time with a claim of being the man's son. While these effortsareenlightening, they are also futile—and in one case tragic—until Ludo finds his match in one who knows the dialogue of Seven Samurai almost as well as he does. Unabashedly over the top at times but, still, a saga that gives rise to as much amusement as it does sober reflection. A promising start, indeed.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780676973266
  • Publisher: Knopf Canada
  • Publication date: 11/13/2001
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in Maryland, Helen DeWitt grew up mainly in South America, and now lives in England. She read Classics at Oxford, where she also gained a DPhil. Rights to this, her first novel, have been sold in ten countries.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 4

19, 18, 17

1 March, 1993

19 days to my birthday.

I am reading Call of the Wild again. I don't like it as well as White Fang but I have just finished White Fang again.

I am up to Odyssey 19.322. I have stopped making cards for all the words because there would be too much to carry around but I just make cards for words that look useful. Today we went to the museum and they have a picture of the Odyssey, it is supposed to show the Cyclops but you can't actually see him. It is called Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus. Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus. There was a card on the wall saying you can see Polyphemus on the mountain but you can't. I told the guard they should change it and he said it was not up to him. I asked who it was up to and he said maybe the head of the gallery. I tried to get Sibylla to take me to see the head but she said he was too busy and it would be more polite to write him a letter, she said I could write him a letter and practise my handwriting. I said why don't you write a letter. She said he had probably never had a letter from a five-year-old before, if I wrote a letter and signed it Ludo Aged Five he would pay attention to it. I think this is stupid because anybody could sign a letter Aged Five. Sibylla said true, one look at your handwriting and he won't believe you're a day over two. She seemed to think this was hysterically funny.

2 March, 1993

18 days to my birthday. I have been on the planet 5 years and 348 days.

3 March, 1993

17 days to my birthday. We rode the Circle Line today because we couldn't go back to any museums. It was tedious in the extreme. One funny thing that happened is that a lady got into an argument with Sibylla about two men who were about to be flayed alive. Sibylla explained that one of the men dies of heart failure at time t and the other at time t + n after having someone peel off his skin with a knife for n seconds and the lady said pas dev and Sibylla said I should warn you that he speaks French. Then the lady said non um non avanty il ragatso and Sibylla said not forward the boy. Not forward the boy. Not. Forward. The boy. Hmmm. I'm afraid I don't quite understand, you clearly have a command of Italian idiom which I cannot match and the lady said she thought it was not a suitable subject for discussion in the presence of a small child and Sibylla said oh I see, and that's how you say it in Italian. Non avanty il ragatso. I must remember that. The lady said what kind of example do you think you are setting and Sibylla said would you mind if we continued this discussion in Italian, I feel that it is not a suitable subject for discussion in the presence of a small child or as they say in Italian non avanty il ragatso. After she got off the train Sibylla said she should not really have been so rude because we should be polite to people however provoking and I should not follow her example but learn to keep my inevitable reflections to myself. She said it was only because she was a bit tired because she had not been getting much sleep and otherwise she would never have been so rude. I am not so sure but I kept my inevitable reflections to myself.

*****

Chapter 5

We Never Go Anywhere

Early March, winter nearly over. Ludo still following scheme I do not understand: found him reading Metamorphoses the other day though he is only up to Odyssey 22. Seems to have slowed down on Odyssey, has only been reading 100 lines or so a day for past few weeks. Too tired to think of new places to go, where is there besides National Gallery National Portrait Gallery Tate Whitechapel British Museum Wallace Collection that is free? Financially in fairly good position as have typed Advanced Angling 1969-present, Mother and Child 1952-present, You and Your Garden 1932-1989, British Home Decorator 1961-present, Horn & Hound 1920-1976, and am now making good progress with The Poodle Breeder, 1924-1982. Have made virtually no progress with Japanese.

Another argument about Cunliffe. L: Why can't we go to the National Gallery again?

I: You promised you wouldn't go through doors marked Authorised Personnel Only.

L: It didn't say Authorised Personnel Only. It said Staff.

I: Exactly. In other words people who worked there, because the people who work there want to get on with their work without being disturbed by people who don't work there. If at some stage you decide to reject the theory of a Ludocentric universe do let me know.

We go to Tower Hill to catch a Circle Line train. The Circle Line is experiencing delays, so we sit down & I discover that Ludo has smuggled Kalilah wa Dimnah into the pushchair. He takes it out and starts reading, turning the pages quickly -- the vocabulary is pretty easy and repetitive, should really have picked something harder but too late now.

A woman comes up & stares & admires & comments, How on earth did you teach so young a child?

She says she has a five-year-old herself & presses me for my methods which I explain, such as they are, & she says surely there must be more to it than that.

L: I know French and Greek and Arabic and Hebrew and Latin and I'm going to start Japanese when I finish this book and the Odyssey.

[What?]

L: I had to read 8 books of the Metamorphoses and 30 stories in the Thousand & One Nights and I Samuel and the Book of Jonah and learn the cantellation and do 10 chapters of Algebra Made Easy and now I just have to finish this book and one book of the Odyssey.

[What!!!!?] My admirer says that's wonderful & that it's so important for small children to have a sense of achievement, & then drawing me slightly aside says that all the same it's important to keep a sense of proportion, one needs to strike a balance, dangerous to carry things to extremes, moderation in all things, not that she means to interfere.

By the looks of things I have about three days' grace before I start teaching Japanese to a child with no sense of proportion whatsoever.

My admirer is still hovering & hesitating, having struck a blow for moderation she says something or other about her own child who is no genius.

I say What about French, she might like to learn French

& she says I know it sounds awful but I haven't the time.

I say she is probably expecting too much, why not teach her just one word a day & let her colour it in in a book wherever she finds it, the secret of success is to complete a single simple task on a daily basis.

Is that what you did? she asks looking awestruck at Kalilah wa Dimnah (which is completely ridiculous as it is a very easy text, far too easy in my opinion).

No, I say. But it is still the best method.

Two Circle Line trains came and went and a District Line train pulled in and pulled out on its way to Upminster. She said But how did you get him to do all that work and I explained about the five words and the Schwan Stabilo highlighter & she said Yes but there must be more to it than that, there must be more to it than that --

so that I could not help thinking of things I would rather not think about, such as how hard it is to be nice and how hard it was going to be to be nice.

She seemed to be really interested because now a Barking train came and went and still she was here. She said what she meant was for example she had studied Latin herself, well if you teach a child French the simple task could be a word whereas in an inflected language the grammar was so frightfully complicated surely beyond the grasp of a four-year-old child.

I said I thought small children liked matching things up, it was not that big a deal, I just explained that the words had to match and he could see that they matched, though of course it probably made more sense when he got used to the idea.

She was smiling sympathetically. What a nice thing to explain to a four-year-old child.

I had not planned to give him a whole declension on the first day as I knew very well what Mr. Ma would think. L seemed to be having such a good time colouring in words with his highlighter, though, and it is always such a relief when a small child finds something to do that it is happy to go on doing, that I wrote out some tables for him (including the dual), with the comforting reflection that Mr. Ma was not there to see it. I told him he could colour in any of the words that he found & then I went back to John Denver leaving Iliad 1-12 on the chair.

Four or five hours went by. After a while I looked up and he was doing something on the floor. I went over to him and he smiled up at me. He had gone back to the beginning of Iliad 1 in my Oxford Classical Text, and he had highlighted his five words and all occurrences of the definite article all the way to the end of Iliad 12, so that every page had blocks of green scattered over it.

He said Where is Volume Two? I need to finish this.

I said patiently after a short pause I don't know where it is, I was looking for it earlier, and I added patiently Perhaps you should learn some more words and go back over Volume I again instead. You could use a different colour. If you need more practice you can go on to Volume II.

He said All right. Can I have ten words this time?

I said Natürlich. You can have as many as you want. This is tremendously good. I thought it would be too hard for you.

He said Of course it's not too hard for me.

& I looked again at the coloured page and I said

And DON'T YOU DARE colour in ANY OTHER BOOK without ASKING ME FIRST.

That was all I said, & it was too much. A chittering Alien bursts from the breast to devour your child before your eyes. He looked down at the page,

& I returned to my work and he returned to his work.

I had tried to be patient and kind but this was not very nice.

A week went by. I have heard it said that small children have no powers of concentration. What in God's name is to keep a small child from concentrating on something? L anyway was a monomaniac. He would leap out of bed at 5:00 in the morning, put on four or five sweaters, go downstairs to get out his eight Schwan Stabilo highlighters and get to work. At about 6:30 or so he would rush upstairs to report on his progress waving a fluorescent page in my face and I disapproving of the type of parent who fobs a child off with Wonderful Wonderful would murmur Wonderful and then disarmed by a face like a new penny ask questions. Elephant stampede up and down stairs for a couple of hours & time to get up.

A week as I say went by. One day I snatched a few moments from typing to read Ibn Battuta & L came up and just looked. He didn't say anything. I knew what this meant: it meant for all my good intentions I had not been very nice. So I said: Would you like to learn it? And he naturally said he would so I went through the whole procedure again, and I gave him a little animal fable to read in Kalilah wa Dimnah. And now each night I would look up the next twenty words in each book and write them down for him so that it would not be so boring for him at 5:00 in the morning.

Four days went by. I tried to be careful but you can't always be careful and one day I went to look something up in Isaiah. I got out my Tanach and he came over and looked and that was that.

Copyright© 2000 Helen DeWitt

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First Chapter

My father's father was a Methodist minister. He was a tall, handsome, noble-looking man; he had a deep, beautiful voice. My father was an ardent atheist and admirer of Clarence Darrow. He skipped grades the way other boys skip class, he lectured my grandfather's flock on carbon 14 and the origin of species, and he won a full scholarship to Harvard at the age of 15.
He took the letter from Harvard to his father.
Something looked through my grandfather's beautiful eyes. Something spoke with his beautiful voice, and it said: It's only fair to give the other side a chance.
My father said: What do you mean?
What it meant was that my father should not reject God for secularism just because he won arguments with uneducated people. He should go to a theological college and give the other side a fair chance; if he was still of the same mind at the end he would still be only 19, a perfectly good age to start college.
My father, being an atheist and a Darwinist, had a very delicate sense of honor, and he could not resist this appeal. He applied to various theological seminaries, and all but three rejected him out of hand because he was too young. Three asked him to come for an interview.
The first was a seminary with a fine reputation, and my father because of his youth was interviewed by the head.
The man said: You're very young. Is it possible that you want to be a minister because of your father?
My father said he did not want to be a minister, but he wanted to give the other side a fair chance, and he explained about carbon 14.
The man said: The ministry is a vocation and the training we offer is designed for people who feel called to it. I doubt very muchthat you would benefit from it.
He said: This offer from Harvard is a remarkable opportunity. Couldn't you give the other side a fair chance by taking a course in theology? I believe the college started out, after all, as a College of Divinity, and I imagine they must still teach the subject.
The man smiled at my father kindly and he offered to give him a list of books to read if he would like to do any more in the way of giving the other side a fair chance. My father drove home (they were living in Sioux City at the time) and all the way he thought that this might give the other side a fair chance.
He spoke to his father. The point was made that one course in theology in a strongly secular environment would probably not make a very considerable impact, but all the same my father must decide for himself.
My father went to the second seminary, which had a good reputation. He was interviewed by the Dean.
The Dean asked him why he wanted to become a minister, and my father explained that he did not want to become a minister, and he explained about carbon 14.
The Dean said he respected my father's intentions, but still there was something whimsical about it, and he pointed out that my father was very young. He recommended that my father go to Harvard first and then if he still wanted to give the other side a fair chance he would be delighted to consider his application.
My father returned to his father. The beautiful voice pointed out that a man with a degree from Harvard would find it hard to resist the temptation of going instantly into a career, but it said that of course my father must decide for himself.
My father drove to the third seminary, which was small and obscure. My father was interviewed by a Deputy Dean. It was a hot day, and though a small fan was blowing the Deputy Dean, a red fat man, was sweating hard. The Deputy Dean asked why my father wanted to be a minister and my father explained about the fair chance and about carbon 14.
The Deputy Dean said that the church paid the fees of the seminarians who planned to become ministers. He said that as my father did not plan to become a minister they would have to charge $1,500 a year.
My father returned to his father, who said that he supposed my father could earn $750 over the summer at one of the gas stations, and that he would then give him the rest.
So my father went to a theological college. When I say that he went to a theological college I mean that he enrolled at a theological college & went every Saturday to synagogue out of interest because there was no rule to say you couldn't, and spent most of the rest of the time shooting pool at Helene's, the only bar in town that would serve a 16-year-old.
He waited for my grandfather to ask how he was finding it, but my grandfather never asked.
At the synagogue my father met someone ten years older who ran the services and did most of the readings. He looked a lot like Buddy Holly, and in fact people called him Buddy (he preferred it to Werner). At first my father thought this was the rabbi, but the town was too small to support a rabbi: The services were run by local volunteers. Buddy had wanted to be an opera singer, but his father had insisted he train as an accountant, and he had come from Philadelphia to take up a job as an accountant. He too spent a lot of time shooting pool at Helene's.
By the end of three years my father was very good at shooting pool. He had saved up about $500 from his winnings, and he played carelessly so as not to win too much or too often. He could beat everyone in the bar, but one night a stranger came in.
By some accident the stranger played everyone else first. He played with smooth, economical movements, and it was obvious he was in a different class from anyone my father had played so far. My father wanted to play him; Buddy kept trying to warn him off. He thought there was something not quite right about the stranger; either he would win more than my father could afford to lose, or he would lose and pull a gun. My father thought this was ridiculous, but then the stranger's jacket rode up as he bent over and they saw a gun strapped to his waist.
The game came to an end and my father walked up. He said: My friend here says you're dangerous. The stranger said: I can be.
My father said grinning broadly: He says you'll kill me if I win.
The stranger said: Are you so sure you'll win?
My father said: There's only one way to find out.
The stranger said: And who might you be?
My father said he was at the seminary.
The stranger expressed surprise at finding a seminarian in the bar.
My father said: We are all sinners, brother, in a rather sarcastic tone of voice.
The stranger and my father played a game and five dollars changed hands.
The stranger said: Do you want your revenge?
They played another game which took longer. My father was still playing carelessly; he naturally did not talk while the stranger was playing, but when it was his own turn he answered the stranger's questions with sarcastic stories about the seminary. The stranger was a man of few words, but he seemed amused. My father won in the end with a lucky shot and five dollars changed hands.
The stranger said: Now let's make it interesting.
My father said: How interesting do you want to make it?
The stranger asked how much money my father had in the world and Buddy Holly mouthed the words NO NO Don't tell him you stupid jerk from behind his back and my father said he had $500.
The stranger said he would give any odds against the $500. My father couldn't tell if he was serious.
He said: A hundred bucks. Best of five.
The stranger said in that case he'd like to see the color of his money, because he had to get back on the road and he was not going to hang around for a hundred bucks. He said 5 to 1.
My father had $25 on him. He borrowed $25 from Buddy and the rest in tens and fives from people in the bar who knew he was good for it.
They played two games and the stranger won them both easily. They started the third game and the stranger began to win easily, but then my father's luck turned and he pulled himself together and won. He won the fourth game, though it was a hard fight, and then he won the fifth game and it was silent in the bar. Other people in the bar had seen the gun too.
The stranger reached inside his jacket and everyone froze. Then he took out a wallet. He extracted five $100 bills from a thick stack.
He said: I don't suppose you've had this much money all at one time before.
My father pointed out that he already had $500.
The stranger said: $1,000! That's a lot of money.
He said: I hate to see a man with money who doesn't know what to do with it.
My father said: What do you mean?
The stranger said if you knew something a little ahead of other folks you could sometimes make money if you already had money.
My father said: What do you know?
The stranger said he wouldn't be surprised if the new highway was built that way.
My father said: If you know that for a fact why don't you do something about it? Buy some real estate.
The stranger said: I don't like property. It ties you down. But if I didn't mind owning property, and I had $1,000, I'd know what to do with the money.
The bar closed and the stranger drove off. It happened that Mrs. Randolph, Buddy's landlady, wanted to sell her house and move to Florida, but no one was buying. My father pointed out that if the stranger was right they could buy this house and turn it into a motel and make a lot of money.
If, said Buddy.
The fact was that they were both convinced that the stranger knew what he was talking about; the gun lent a mysterious conviction to the story.
My father said he wasn't going to have time for that though, because once he was through with the seminary he was going to Harvard. He had written to Harvard to take up the earlier offer.
A few weeks went by. A letter came from Harvard explaining that they would like to see what he had been doing for the past few years and asking for his grades and a reference. My father provided these, and a couple of months went by. One day a letter came which nmst have been hard to write. It said Harvard was prepared to offer him a place based on his earlier record, and it went on to explain that scholarships however were awarded purely on merit, so that it would not be fair to other students to give one to someone with a D average. It said that if he chose to take up the place he would need to pay the normal cost of tuition.
My father went home to Sioux City for Easter. Buddy went home to Philadelphia to celebrate Passover. My father took the letter to his father.
My grandfather looked at the letter from Harvard, and he said that he believed it was God's will that my father should not go to Harvard.
Four years earlier my father had had a brilliant future. Now he faced life with a mediocre degree from an obscure theological college, a qualification absolutely useless to a man incapable of entering the ministry.
My father was struck speechless with disgust. He left the house without a word. He drove a Chevrolet 1,300 miles.
In later years my father sometimes played a game. He'd meet a man on his way to Mexico and he'd say, Here's fifty bucks, do me a favor and buy me some lottery tickets, and he'd give the man his card. Say the odds against winning the jackpot were 20 million to 1 and the odds against the man giving my father the winning ticket another 20 million to 1, you couldn't say my father's life was ruined because there was a 1 in 400 trillion chance that it wasn't.
Or my father might meet a man on his way to Europe and he'd say, Here's fifty bucks, if you happen to go to Monte Carlo do me a favor, go to the roulette table and put this on number 17 and keep it there for 17 spins of the wheel, the man would say he wasn't planning to go to Monte Carlo and my father would say But if you do and he'd give him his card. Because what were the odds that the man would change his plans and go to Monte Carlo, what were the odds that 17 would come up 17 times in a row, what were the odds that if it did the man would send the money on to my father? Whatever they were it was not absolutely impossible but only highly unlikely, and it was not absolutely certain that my grandfather had destroyed him because there was a 1 in 500 trillion trillion trillion chance that he had not.
My father played the game for a long time because he felt he should give my grandfather a sporting chance. I don't know when he played it for the last time, but the first time was when he left the house without a word and drove 1,300 miles to see Buddy in Philadelphia.
My father parked in front of Buddy's house. A piece of piano music was being played loudly and bitterly in the front room. Doors were slammed. There were loud voices. Somebody screamed. The piano was silent. Somebody started playing the piano loudly and bitterly. My father found Buddy who explained what was going on.
Buddy had wanted to be an opera singer and was an accountant. His brother Danny had wanted to be a clarinettist and worked in his father's jewelry business. His sister Frieda had wanted to be a violinist and worked as a secretary before marrying and having three children. His sister Barbara had wanted to be a violinist and worked as a secretary before marrying and having two children. His youngest sister, Linda, wanted to be a singer and she had now refused point-blank to go to secretarial college; his father had refused point- blank to let her study music. Linda had gone to the piano and begun to play Chopin's Prelude No. 24 in D minor, a bitter piece of music which gains in tragic intensity when played 40 times in a row.
The fact was that their father was Viennese and had very high standards. The children could all play five or six instruments with flair but they hated to practice: They emerged from each piece either bloody but unbowed or miraculously unscathed, and they had all assumed they would be musicians. Buddy was the first to find they would not. Mr. Konigsberg thought that either you had talent or you did not; none of his children played like a Heifetz or a Casals or a Rubinstein, therefore they did not have the talent to be professionals; therefore they would be better off just enjoying their music, and he explained when Buddy finished high school that he thought he should be an accountant.
Buddy said to my father: You know at the time I didn't want to upset my father, I didn't want to make a big thing of it, I thought who am I to say I could be a singer, but then all the others gave in without an argument. I keep thinking, what if it's my fault? If I'd put my foot down maybe my father would have gotten used to the idea whereas instead they all thought they didn't have a choice, I keep thinking what if it's all my fault?
& he waited hopefully—
& my father said: Of course it's your fault. Why didn't you stand up to him? You let the whole side down. The least you can do is make sure it doesn't happen again.
My father knew that he would always hate himself for respecting his own father's wishes, and he now thought that at least someone else could avoid this mistake.
Does she have a place? he asked.
No, said Buddy.
Well she should go for an audition, said my father, and he went into the front room followed by Buddy to argue for this point of view.
In the front room was a 17-year-old girl with fierce black hair, fierce black eyes & ferocious red lipstick. She did not look up because she was halfway through her 41st consecutive rendition of Chopin's Prelude No. 24 in D minor.
My father stood by the piano and he suddenly thought What would be the odds against going to a seminary and going to synagogue and learning to play pool, just suppose he fell in love with a Jewish girl from Philadelphia and made a fortune in motels and lived happily ever after, say the odds were a billion to one that was still not the same as impossible so it was not actually impossible that his father had not, in fact—
Linda plunged down to the bass and hammered out three bitter low notes. Doom. Doom. Doom.
The piece was over. She looked up before starting again.
Who are you? she said.
Buddy introduced my father.
Oh, the atheist, said my mother.
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