Book Review: Southbound
For a book that touches on the delicate subject of gambling addiction, Jason Beem’s “Southbound” is truly an effortless and enjoyable read. Beem doesn’t hit the reader over the head with repetitive reminders of the dark realities of gambling gone wrong. When the ramifications of his fictional lead character’s recklessness – loosely, or perhaps not so loosely, based on Beem’s own real life experiences – subtly begin to surface, it becomes clear how severe the addiction can be.
Most problem gamblers have been asked at some point or another, “how did you allow yourself to get to this point?” For Beem, a race track announcer at Portland Meadows, the answer is told through the inner dialogue of 32-year-old Ryan McGuire. Incidentally, McGuire is a racing announcer at Portland Meadows who has battled gambling addiction for years.
Southbound opens with a “recovered” McGuire attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings and noting that he hasn’t placed a bet in more than a year and a half. While McGuire conveys an acute awareness of all the pitfalls that could lead him right back into gambling, his words reflect an unmistakable fear of – and foreshadow – an eventual relapse.
Through exchanges with other problem gamblers, both at GA meetings and at the track where he confronts his addiction daily, McGuire highlights the mentality of an addict. One particular anecdote is about a racetrack regular named Bennie, who has just cashed a $10,000 winning ticket:
“For the compulsive action gambler, like Bennie, or me, ten thousand dollars assures us of what we want most, which is to stay in the game. It’s a way for us to continue to fund the addiction, and to chase after more and more… He knows the money is going to go away again, but this hit allowed him the opportunity to pretend he’s going to be a winner, at least for a little while.”
Having been able to resist the constant temptation he’s felt to join guys like Bennie at the betting window, things abruptly change for McGuire when he’s dealt two unexpected blows. First, his girlfriend breaks up with him and then he’s laid off from his announcing job at the track. The former leads to McGuire easing his pain by making his first bet and the latter prompts a total relapse.
As difficult as it had been to suppress his betting urges for the previous 18 months, McGuire arrives at his next resolution with incredible ease. He decides to withdraw a majority of the money in his saving’s account and to move out to Los Angeles to become a professional gambler. He’s able to convince himself that if he bets responsibly – and with a discipline he’s hardly ever demonstrated before – he’ll be able to make it.
For a while, McGuire shows renewed self-control and experiences some success. However, his plans begin to unravel with each passing chapter. Southbound takes its readers along on the turbulent journey of a man contemplating his destiny and the role he might be playing in sabotaging himself.
“Sometimes I think I get off on F*&%ing up my life. Failure has its own addictive quality.”
Despite the serious nature of McGuire’s addictions – including an affinity for “cheap companionship” that he finds online – the storyline remains surprisingly light, thanks in large part to Beem’s ability to incorporate humor into the text. Several sections of the book come to mind but one, in particular, featured in a later chapter entitled “Cal Expo” will almost certainly make any reader laugh out loud.
Beem’s lead character is both perverted and perverse, witty and self-depreciating in embracing his tragic role in the dark comedy that is his life. In reading Southbound, you can’t help but be swept away by the waves of dramatic emotion and physiological chaos that McGuire is experiencing. To begin with, watching a horse race unfold or, in this case, reading about it, is an exciting experience. You’ll feel compelled to root for McGuire, even if you know that his wins will only be temporary – as already conceded by McGuire in his reflections about Bennie earlier in the book.
You can probably speculate with accuracy about how McGuire’s story ends. But Soutbound’s value and overall appeal has much more to do with the journey that precedes McGuire’s predictable demise. Through his story, and Beem’s brave confessional, readers get a little taste of a reality that might defy comprehension, for some. For those who can relate, Southbound might offer hope, deeper insights into gambling addiction and, if nothing else, a brief break from gambling.
Review written by Dan Tordjman/DanonymousRacing.com