(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Music of Chance begins with Jim Nashe, a former firefighter from Boston, coming to the end of a year-long road journey. In this way, the novel is reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), but the similarities end there. Nashe, one learns, is on the road thanks to a $200,000 inheritance from a father he never really knew, which has allowed him to leave behind his everyday life and drift around the United States. His trip is a series of chance encounters, and, just as the money is about to run out, he meets a seedy character named Jack Pozzi, a gambler who inducts him into the “International Brotherhood of Lost Dogs.” Nashe gambles away the last of his inheritance by bankrolling a poker game that Pozzi has put together. The game is with two Pennsylvania millionaires named Flower and Stone, who demand that Nashe and Pozzi work off their debt by building a stone wall on their estate.

Another strong outing by Auster, this book differs significantly from his others. It is a road narrative, but, as always in Auster’s world, chance is an authoritative force. Auster explores the roles of security and serenity, the restraints of freedom and solitude, the power of language and randomness in a violently apathetic world, and the nature of the true quest for justice. The Music of Chance is a thrilling story told in clean and exact prose.

The Music of Chance Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Music of Chance is the story of two drifters who lose everything in a poker game with two eccentric lottery winners and agree to pay off their debt by erecting a stone wall. As they perform this mindless labor, they find that instead of forfeiting their freedom, they have simply replaced one illusion of freedom with another.

Jim Nashe and Jack Pozzi are the main characters in the novel. Nashe is recovering from a trying period in his life following a devastating divorce. His way of coping was to quit his job, empty his bank account, and take off for a year of relentless cross-country driving. Near the end of his travels, just north of New York City, he spots Pozzi stumbling along the side of the road, beaten and broke after an ill-fated poker game. Nashe is sympathetic and, after hearing Pozzi’s story, agrees to bankroll Pozzi in a poker game with two millionaire lottery winners named Flower and Stone. After a brief stopover in New York, Nashe and Pozzi head for southeastern Pennsylvania, where Flower and Stone, who live in a crumbling old mansion, show them the house and feed them children’s food for dinner. Flower, Stone, and Pozzi then begin the poker game as Nashe watches. At one point, Nashe leaves the room for quite a while; upon his return, he finds that Pozzi is having a losing streak that continues until he loses everything. As a last resort, they cut the deck for ten thousand dollars—and Pozzi loses again.

To pay off their debt to Flower and Stone, Nashe and Pozzi agree to hire on as stonemasons, at ten...

(The entire section is 636 words.)

The Music of Chance Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Auster, Paul. Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure. New York: Henry Holt, 1997. A disturbing account of the author’s difficult early years. Uneven in treatment, but contains some revealing insights into the genesis of The Music of Chance.

Barone, Dennis, ed. Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. This first book-length study of Auster’s work includes generous commentary on The Music of Chance.

Bawer, Bruce. “Family Ties with an Athenian Twist.” The Wall Street Journal, September 21, 1990, p. A12. Delightfully stimulating observations on The Music of Chance by an original critic.

Irwin, Mark. “Memory’s Escape: Inventing The Music of Chance—A Conversation with Paul Auster.” Denver Quarterly 28, no. 3 (Winter, 1994): 111-122. A provocative insight into Auster’s techniques, purposes, and personality.

Mannes-Abbott, Guy. “The Music of Chance.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 143 (March 22, 1991): 45. A refreshing look at The Music of Chance through the ideas of a respected English critic.

Saltzman, Arthur M. Designs of Darkness in Contemporary American Fiction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. Includes challenging commentary on The Music of Chance.