literary fiction

“The percentage will always stand fast”

fools die cover

Fools Die by Mario Puzo

My favorite Mario Puzo book is not The Godfather. Instead it is Fools Die. At first glance you might think Fools Die is a rambling chunk of literary fiction that is more a catalogue of events than an actual novel. However, this structure is quite appropriate  because in all actuality Fools Die is about randomness.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this point better than the scene where the casino boss, Gronevelt, takes one of the characters out for an educational gambling binge (only in describing a novel like Fools Die could I write a phrase like “educational gambling binge” with a straight face):

Cully remembered one period in the history of the Xanadu Hotel when three months straight the Xanadu dice tables had lost money every night. The players were getting rich. Cully was sure there was a scam going on. He had fired all of the dice pit personnel. Gronevelt had all the dice analyzed by scientific laboratories. Nothing helped. Cully and the casino manager were sure somebody had come up with a new scientific device to control the roll of the dice. There could be no other explanation. Only Gronevelt held fast.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “the percentage will work.”

And sure enough, after three months the dice had swung just as wildly the other way. The dice pit had winning tables every night for over three months. At the end of the year it had all evened out. Gronevelt had had a congratulatory drink with Cully and said, “You can lose faith in everything, religion and God, women and love, good and evil, war and peace. You name it. But the percentage will always stand fast.”

[…]  By the middle of the second week, Gronevelt, despite all his skill, was sliding downhill. The percentages were grinding him into dust. And at the end of the two weeks he had lost his million dollars. When he bet his last stack of chips and lost, Gronevelt turned to Cully and smiled. He seemed to be delighted, which struck Cully as ominous. “It’s the only way to live,” Gronevelt said. “You have to live going with the percentage. Otherwise life is not worthwhile. Always remember that,” he told Cully. “Everything you do in life use percentage as your god.”

If there’s a practical lesson in all this it’s don’t play the lottery. But I think there’s something vaguely spiritual going on here. Maybe a super dysfunctional kind of zen (oxymoron, anyone?).  In the words of the Greek statesman/philosopher Solon: “let no man be called happy before his death. Till then he is not happy, only lucky.”