Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2012 May 11 • Friday

This book was great, despite occasional racist language, typical of the period, alas. (This is a 1949 paperback edition of a 1933 novel.) The story wasn't at all what I expected. Here's what the back cover tells you.

That's pretty accurate as far as it goes. But the really interesting part of it is that Dark Hazard is the name of a dog, and most of the gambling that happens in the book takes place at dog racing tracks.

The story begins in Chicago, 1928. where Jim is working as a night clerk in a shabby apartment hotel, a job that W. R. Burnett once had as well. The action then moves to California, 1929, and then finally to Ohio, 1932.

Jim and Marg are barely getting by in Chicago and Marg's family back in Ohio has money problems. Jim loses his job, wins three thousand dollars at roulette and then gets a job at a dog racing track in California.

In California Jim falls under the spell of the dog Dark Hazard, who doesn't look like a champion but streaks by every other dog on the track time and time again. Marg struggles to tolerate the world of gamblers that provides them with their livelihood but Jim's childlike obsession with Dark Hazard derails their marriage after Marg becomes pregnant. Marg returns to her Ohio hometown where, three years later, she's confronted by a bottomed-out Jim who wants to start again.

The theme that runs through each of these three parts (Chicago, California, Ohio) is one of people struggling to suppress their nature, to be not themselves but somebody others want them to be. Jim is trying to live in Marg's world and Marg is trying to live in Jim's world but it's an impossible fit for both of them. Dark Hazard, a creature who gives itself free rein and lets its drive take it as far and as fast as it can go, is something of a symbol of unfettered nature and pure will.

Dark Hazard is surprisingly touching and absorbing, and very well written. One of the impressive qualities of the book is how well drawn the characters are. They are all human, imperfect and sympathetic. There are no villains, no heroes. Even Dark Hazard turns out to be a real creature, not a mere symbol, in the end—and a sweet, friendly, animal as well.

This edition has many typos and perhaps there's one in the first line, which would explain the run-on sentence: "The clock above the switchboard struck midnight slowly, each chime was preceded by a faint, weary, premonitory whir, then the works buzzed for a moment after the final chime and went on ticking".