The King of Cards

In the fall of 1965, when Tommy Fallon began his first year at Baltimore’s Calvert College, he was hoping, he tells the reader, to escape his family, his past, and what he characterizes as Baltimoronism: pious narrow-mindedness, bigotry, crabcakes, National Boh beer, and football as a religion with Johnny Unitas as God.

At Calvert, Tommy plans to find salvation in the life of the mind. He is prepared to ascend to a new world, a clear, cool place where cultured people talk in measured tones about deep and meaningful subjects. He wants to get as far away as he can from the emotional three-ring circus that is his family.

Instead of the life of the mind, however, as represented by his English professor, Dr. Spaulding, Tommy finds himself drawn willy-nilly into the orbit of the charismatic Jeremy Raines, the self-anointed captain, king, and priest to the merry gang of originals who inhabit the Chateau, a rundown Victorian house where Tommy rents a room. Jeremy is a con man, a mad man, possibly a saint, and certainly a sinner. His current grand scheme involves making a fortune by cornering the college I.D. card market, and he soon has Tommy skipping classes and neglecting his work to take part.

While Jeremy is seducing Tommy’s imagination and playing havoc with his dreams of intellectual achievement, Tommy’s heart and another part of his anatomy are captured by the delectable and uninhibited Val Jackson—a girl with “a perfect ass and long white legs,” a girl who writes poetry and knows jazz musicians and who is, as she says, “partial to sex.”

Jeremy’s reign as “The King of Cards” comes to its inevitable end, but not before he and Tommy and their cohorts have escaped some close calls involving the Baltimore Mafia and a violent Irish gang known as the Shamrocks, and not before what must be the first ever case of death by lamination.

When the revels are ended, Tommy is no longer the callow boy he was a few months earlier, and it is impossible that he will ever turn into the dry, dispassionate academic he had intended to become. Instead, he has transcended his past and his possible future, and become fully awake to the amazing possibilities life has to offer him.