Monday, May 9, 2016

Underlay by Barry Malzberg

"You keep on mumbling about systems and charts and possibilities, but all I can see is that you're losing all of our hard-earned money....."
"It just takes a little time to break in," I observed.  "You can't come into a game cold and beat the hell out of it any more than you can start off in politics as President." 
My copy, from 1970
I highly recommend Charles Platt's 1980 book of interviews, Dream Makers, to anybody interested in Golden Age and New Wave science fiction.  Particularly entertaining and insightful is Platt's interview with Barry Malzberg.  Platt, who over the course of the interview eats Kentucky Fried Chicken and beats Malzberg at chess under Malzberg's own New Jersey roof, depicts Malzberg as a sort of egotistical loser who actually relishes being a loser.  Malzberg also reveals that the novel of which he is most proud is Underlay.  By coincidence, I had purchased Underlay at a Lexington, Kentucky flea market only days before acquiring Dream Makers at an Ohio Half-Price Books.  This week I read the novel, which, the advertising text on the very first page of the book maintains, "is the result of seventeen years of research."

1986 edition
Harry the Flat was a New Yorker who scrupulously avoided relationships with women because the true focus of his life was betting on the horse races!   He spent much of the 1950s and '60s at the Aqueduct Racetrack, trying out "systems," providing advice to other bettors, and losing vast sums of money.  In 1967 he died in violent and mysterious circumstances, right there at the track, and the Mob buried him right under the race track!  For four years horses have been thundering right over his rotting corpse! But the Mob's math experts have recognized that his presence is somehow throwing off the horses, making it harder for them to predict who will win each race. Harry the Flat must be disinterred!

Our narrator is one of Harry's friends, another gambler with an uneasy relationship with the Mob and with women (as we learn in graphic sex scenes, even during intercourse with his own wife and with Harry's widow he is distracted by thoughts of the races!)  Gangsters install a time bomb in his flesh and promise to remove it only after he has dug up his buddy Harry's remains and moved them to a less disruptive location.  This novel chronicles the day of this desperate operation, but most of its 49 chapters are devoted to flashbacks and background related to the narrator's and Harry's lives, and asides about life and horse racing.

Underlay is not marketed as SF, but like in so many SF stories, our narrator, halfway through the book, is told that the world is, unbeknownst to most, the site of a struggle between two powerful conspiratorial factions, and finds that one of the factions (the "Counters") is trying to recruit him away from the other, allegedly evil, faction, the Mob.  The Mob secretly rules the world, but their dominance relies on control of Aqueduct Racetrack, which means that the fate of the human race is in our narrator's hands--if he digs up Harry the Flat the world will groan under fifty years of Mob tyranny, but if he refuses to do the Mob's bidding the Earth will be benignly guided by the Counters.  At least, that is what a girl at a retail counter tells him.  (Such women can be very persuasive!)

(Malzberg scholars will recall how he has published fiction in which an unlikely individual believes that the outcome of his chess game or how he performs his civil service job will determine the fate of the Earth.)

Underlay is quite funny--it made me laugh out loud numerous times.  In this vale of tears, in which at any moment we could be facing a domineering mother, oral surgery, or the spectacle of our political party being hijacked by a fully-paid-up member of the opposing political party, such laughter is welcome!  Of course all this horse racing business is an allegory for our lives, which, despite all our calculations and all the advice we get from others, are totally unpredictable and often seem absolutely out of our control, and much of Underlay's humor comes from a recognition of life's utter mystery and futility.  Harry, the narrator, and numerous other characters (including one of Malzberg's obsessive subjects, President John F. Kennedy) all suffer repeated defeats and dreadful tragedies, no matter how hard they try to understand the universe or master their own lives, and no matter how lofty their stations.

2015 edition with its overly serious
cover illustration
I am ready to agree with Malzberg that Underlay is his best novel.  It is more coherent, more smoothly constructed, and more accessible than most of his work, and, most importantly, more fun.  I strongly recommend it to Malzberg fans (of course) and people who like humorous down-and-out narratives (I'm thinking of Bukowski here.)  People who like complicated crime capers and fiction that revolves around the horses might also enjoy it; I am not very familiar with such fiction, but it may be that Underlay acts as a sort of parody or homage to such work. An issue one might have with the book is the prevalence of racing slang; I devoted seventeen minutes of research online, reading glossaries of horse racing terminology and looking at maps of the Aqueduct Racetrack, in an effort to make sense of some passages.

My copy of Underlay is particularly darling because a previous owner filled it with underlining and notes in pencil, as if he or she was going to write a scholarly paper about it.  On page 1 is the note "first person," on page 76 (from whence I extracted this blog post's epigraph) I find the phrase "women's reality," and on page 77, where our narrator explains to his wife that he is leading an irresponsible life in deliberate response to how "responsible" people in government and business have screwed up the world, is inscribed "Attack on bourgeoisie." Someone has read this paperback with as much, or more, care than I did!  (Maybe it would cheer poor Barry to know people are reading his masterwork with such attention?)

My copy is, I believe, a first edition, from January, 1974, printed by Avon.  In 1986 an edition was produced by International Polygonics Limited; in 2015 Stark House Press published an edition with an inappropriately sober cover and a new Afterword by Malzberg that I would really like to read.


  1. I don't know what to make of a relatively happy Malzberg... the entire idea is alien. I mean, there is humor in his depressing works of course. If I can find a copy for cheap then I'll snatch it up for sure.

    1. Underlay is laugh out loud funny, but it is still about murder, suicide, sexual dysfunction, financial insecurity, conspiracy and mental illness, so, at its base, it is a depressing work.

      And remember, in his interview with Platt, Malzberg rejects the label of "gloomy writer." He insists he has a "comic vision," and then (modestly) claims that his work should be "life-confirming" because he is so passionate and precise. Malzberg tells Platt that the work of Poul Anderson and Christopher Anvil is far more gloomy than his own.

      These claims by Malzberg from the Platt interview, and the fact that Underlay has a polish and clarity and uniformity that much of Malzberg's work lacks, makes me suspect that Underlay is Malzberg at his best the closest he has come to achieving his artistic goals.

      I wonder what he says in that 2015 Afterward, if he has changed his mind since he talked to Platt in 1979 or if he was just goofing around with Platt.