"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|
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|
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.