There is a uniquely stark, almost cruel matter-of-factness about the truism that you can’t choose your parents. The story of Jack Spayd, protagonist – and survivor – of Jack of Diamonds, the late Bryce Courtenay’s final novel, is a sentimental, gauzy-lensed depiction of a boy born in the slums of Depression-era Toronto who receives a single, accidental act of kindness from his brutish father and with it builds a near-irreproachable life. Even a gambling addiction seems harmless, even endearing, when exercised by Jack Spayd.
Back to the beginning, and his rise from Cabbagetown, a district as unromantic as its name suggests. Jack was, he reflects, lucky; when every kid is in the same boat, family dysfunction and poverty are not the stuff of mockery, they’re just life. But the women are a different story, and his mother, unusual in that she has a fulltime job, endures snide remarks and ostracism from the sisterhood.
That’s the least of her problems, though. Alcoholism and family violence are rife in Cabbagetown, and Harry Spayd’s abusiveness finally drives his wife and son away, though not before the gift of a harmonica unlocks the musical talent that becomes Jack’s passport across decades and continents, from a piano-playing stint in Saskatchewan to wartime service as a medic, close encounters with the mob in Las Vegas and finally, and most incongruously, diamond mining in Africa.
Not a very long way into Jack of Diamonds, it becomes apparent that, perhaps in a race against the clock, Courtenay chose to pack material better suited to a book series into a single volume. Interruption for medical treatment meant the novel took a longer-than-usual two years to complete, and a planned sequel could not be written, though an outline of that story is provided in the epilogue.
What lends the story cohesion, though, is the spirit and grit of Jack, who, as the title suggests and numerous close scrapes prove, has the luck of the Irish. During his brief heyday as a card shark he earns the sobriquet ‘Jack of Spayds’, but he’s less of a gambler than a chancer with honour, a man who strives to do the right thing but always has an exit strategy. Take his military career: after combat experience amounting to “ten minutes of abject terror” during Operation Jubilee, the infamous 1942 raid on the French port of Dieppe, he unabashedly throws in the towel, heads back to the piano and devotes the rest of his service to entertaining the troops.
Later he spurns the safety of a medical career in moribund post-war Toronto in favour of the glitz and grime of Las Vegas, where he will draw on every survival skill honed at the fists of Harry Spayd. There is a controlled recklessness in Jack as in the jazz and blues he loves.
Jack of Diamonds is epic, a grand and glamorous story of a life that should have had neither quality. It is not Courtenay’s masterwork; at a bloated 700 pages, it is simply too long, and much of the dialogue is stilted by the inclusion of exposition that could have been excised. But it’s a story that in its span encompasses the fullness of Courtenay’s understanding of the world, and that resonates with the affection for humanity that characterizes his best work.
Previously reviewed on Coast FM
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones