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Robert Kalich
Impossible To Be Human
Facing the idiosyncrasies of his life and character, David Lazar mercilessly analyses his success. Can we accept irreconcilable contradictions? Can people change? And what does it mean to be human? Peeling layers of conventions and domestication, Lazar is gradually facing the man he once was, his past emotionless and cold existence. He cannot help but wonder: is he still that man or has the love of his wife redeemed him? Can a driven sports handicapper who climbed 'Mt. Gamble' to become the most successful professional handicapper of his generation, become a loving, devoted husband and father? Can writing his life story purge his flaws? The puzzle of life’s inconsistencies grows as Lazar is baffled by his clandestine meetings in his NYC penthouse with Duck, the US president. They go way back when David was Duck’s object of admiration. These days Duck represents everything Lazar rejects: racism, greed, callousness. The two of them mirror all that is opposed in American society and echo the doubt whether these dividing gaps can be bridged. And while Lazar dislikes these secret meetings he is turning into Duck’s confidant, knowing all too well that he is acting against the people he loves. The fragility of existence is further exacerbated by the spread of Covid-19. The presence of death is more tangible than ever. However, counting his blessings only intensifies the fear of loss. Lazar is trying to help the needy, but the knowledge of his own limitations and all that is still required haunts him. And the old, battered question is as relevant as ever: what is then the meaning of it all? There is no straight answer, but as Lazar's identical twin brother observes, David did everything wrong, and yet bounced back lucky in his old age.
The pandemic, political chaos, and questions of what it takes to do good in the world dominate Kalich’s second followup to The Handicapper, his vivid 1981 novel about a cantor’s gambler son who puts together a winning sports handicapping system that makes him rich and a public figure. Now, in this exciting and wholly unpredictable second sequel (after 2019’s David Lazar), the one-time handicapper is back, a wealthy octogenarian facing aging, his latter-years zeal to make sure his life meant something, and the moral quandary of his friendship with the novel’s unexpected guest star: “Duck,” the impeachment-facing businessman president of the United States, an old acquaintance and ranting, Lear-like crank.

Kalich deftly illuminates the drift of mind of a regretful millionaire reflecting back, a man who marched in the Civil Rights efforts of the 1960s but who recognizes little has changed … and whose family is disappointed by his relationship with a president whose policies he hates. (He’d rather spend his time thinking about baseball and reading Clarice Lispector than talking to Duck.) As before, Kalich’s storytelling is sharp-elbowed but thoughtful, committed to exposing persuasive real-life details and ethical quandaries. The air is more rarified than in the grubby world of The Handicapper—but still rank. As Covid deaths accumulate, the president wants Lazar’s help in connecting with a Global Health startup that stands as one of Lazar’s great investments. But Duck’s not looking for international cooperation on Covid treatment; instead, it’s all business opportunities.

That business will profit Lazar of course, though he’s increasingly disgusted by it. He knew Duck when he “was receiving a million-dollar-a-year allowance from his racist father” and proving to be a “liar and cheat” in real estate— and as he becomes the president’s sounding board, in scenes that read like real-life eavesdropping on the nation’s most powerful men, Lazar find Duck’s worst qualities have not abated. The tension rises from whether Lazar will—or even can—try to change things. The ending is a surprising jolt, hopeful and cutting at once, compelling literary comedy laced with truth and outrage.

Takeaway: This surprising novel finds a sports handicapper, 40 years later, as the confidante of the pandemic-era president.

Great for fans of: Curtis Sittenfeld, Carl Hiaasen’s Squeeze Me.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A-