In David Walsh’s memoir, A Bone of Fact (Picador, 2014), he tells a story about Kerry Packer playing at a huge stakes blackjack table in Las Vegas. A rich Texan playing one table over asks to join the game, but Packer refuses. The Texan says, “I can play as big as you. I’m worth a hundred million.” Packer, without taking his eyes off his cards, replies, “I’ll flip you for it.” This story is part of Australian punting folklore. Packer embodies the perverse beauty of the gambler: he is not constricted by risk, but thrives off it. He is the master of chance only because he succumbs to its complete meaninglessness. In A Bone of Fact, David Walsh—who made his fortune gambling and then spent it on MONA, an avant garde art museum at the end of the world—has a similar relationship to risk: he submits wholly to the power of its blind hand. He writes that if it weren’t for good fortune, his exhilarating and “successful” life might’ve been a complete disaster. Walsh insists that despite his wealth and fame he isn’t special or gifted, just absurdly lucky. If, in the game of life, heads wins, Walsh is yet to toss tails.
A Bone of Fact is consistent with the persona Walsh has cultivated since MONA’s opening in 2011 made him a figure of public interest. It is over the top, unconventional, unashamedly ego-driven, ironic, often a little inappropriate, and, like everything Walsh does, a big risk. A Bone of Fact reads like a personal manifesto as much as a memoir, meaning that Walsh is opening himself up to a type of direct and personal criticism he has never risked before. In an attempt to better understand this persona, when given the task of reviewing this memoir, I decided to embrace the attitude of the gambler, the spirit of Packer and Walsh.
Let me explain. There are decisions a reviewer has to make when writing about a book: Do I provide a straight account of the content? How honest am I about my feelings towards the book? How much should I insert myself into the review? But I’m not going to trouble myself with those decisions in this review: I’m going to submit it to the whims of chance. Next to me I have a twenty-cent coin. I’m going to use it as a guide for writing, ask it questions, and follow its answers blindly. I have one rule: heads = yes; tails = no.
1. Should I start this review by rating A Bone of Fact out of 10 and then leave it at that?
Good. That was a test. The coin passed.
2. Should I begin instead by describing the book’s physical properties?
It is a charcoal black hardcover and weighs around two kilograms. Its 368 pages are lined with gold leaf, and on the front, Walsh’s name is printed in huge gold letters. On the back, the blurb reads: “Wherein David Walsh, MONA owner, inventories his pretensions as ‘art, science, maths, smartarse, penis, narcissist’, and adds author to this tally.” Basically, it is big and garish; it looks almost exactly like a Bible you would find in a hotel room.
3. Should I suggest that the physical attributes are an ironic nod to Walsh’s Catholic upbringing, and then later, his rejection of God and outspoken atheism?
4. Do I care that Walsh is an atheist?
5. Should I talk about Kurt Vonnegut?
Early in the memoir, Walsh explains that his literary model is Kurt Vonnegut. He aims to write sentences that are, like Vonnegut’s, “ironic, funny, unpolished but gleaming.” He also uses the Vonnegut-esque device of arranging his chapters—all 83 of them—without any cogent sense of structure. The chapters are short and irreverent, jumping forward and backwards in time and place. One chapter will be about playing blackjack in Korea, and then the next will be about ancient churches in Ethiopia. Walsh assures us that this is an intentional literary decision, and that only those who know “nuthin’ about literature” could possibly want a chronologically ordered memoir.
6. Do I think Walsh succeeds in emulating Vonnegut?
Even though Walsh designates Vonnegut as his literary model, he still constantly reminds us that he is not a writer, but that he is writing anyway. This self-consciousness means that it is hard to get to know him as a writer at all. One sentence will be a short, crude, conceited anecdote about partying with his mates, the next will pontificate about the future of technology, which will be followed by a pseudo-academic argument about the morality of vegetarianism. While Walsh might put this down to Vonnegut-like eclecticism, to me it felt like restlessness and self-consciousness. The constant commenting on process distances Walsh from his reader, and makes the memoir feel overly ironic. Sometimes I wasn’t quite sure whether Walsh was sending himself up, or taking the piss out of us.
7. Should I suggest that Walsh’s writing style reminds me of reading Reddit?
8. Should I reflect on the parts I liked best in the book?
Walsh’s account of his boyhood in Glenorchy, one of the poorest suburbs in Tasmania, is understated and humble. He describes his mother as Catholic, devoted and caring, but incapable of providing affection. He remembers his father, the quintessential Aussie punter, who spent the latter part of his life at the greyhound track killing time, waiting for David’s mother to come back to him. He remembers being a painfully shy kid, “introverted to the point of not being able to make eye contact.” He recalls the admiration he had for his older brother, Tim, who passed away of cancer in his thirties. These reflections, which for Walsh might just be a retelling of the facts, are free of the irony and bravado that pervade the later part of the memoir. These were the points at which I felt closest to Walsh and his life.
9. Should I reflect on the part I disliked most in the book?
10. Is it fair to compare Walsh’s memoir to the profile Richard Flanagan wrote about him?
I learned more about David Walsh from Richard Flanagan than I did from David Walsh. Flanagan paints Walsh as the living incarnation of Dostoevsky’s gambler: a person who seeks to shock the public by taking senseless chances, and therefore leads a captivating, romantic, mysterious life. In A Bone of Fact, Walsh does talk a lot about his unconventional life—world-travel, multiple relationships, group sex, gambling—but I often wished that he wasn’t the one narrating the stories. Under Walsh’s guidance, I felt the romantic mystery of the gambler fade away.
11. Should I call my friend, Noah, who is a professional gambler, and ask him about Walsh’s reputation in the gambling world?
“He’s the best,” Noah says. “Everyone knows he’s the best. He knows he’s the best. Everyone’s heard of him but no one’s met him. He’s an enigma.”
The reason everyone’s heard of Walsh but no one knows him is that he regularly places massive bets on a horse race, then doesn’t show up to see who wins. In A Bone of Fact, Walsh explains that this is because he cares only about the statistics behind the race, not the spectacle of it. He’s interested not in the drama of the finish, but how the numbers can be manipulated through computer software to pay him and his friends massive dividends. And it’s not just the horses that he’s ambivalent about; it’s gambling in general. Unlike your average mug punter at the TAB, gambling gives Walsh no sense of meaning or distraction or entertainment. It is very much a means to an end.
This detached attitude towards gambling has been massively successful. With his partner Zeljko Ranogajek, Walsh heads one of the largest betting syndicates in the world. Their $100 bets on blackjack hands at Tasmania’s Wrest Point Casino have grown into volume betting that is reported to account for six to eight percent of Tabcorp’s $10 billion annual turnover. Despite this success and his reputation for being “the best”, Walsh is understated about his gambling talent. He is adamant that plenty of other people could do what he has done: he was just in the right place at the right time, riding the torrent of luck that seems to follow him in everything he does.
Walsh says that because he is rich, the public mistakenly attributes his success to hard work and talent, rather than outrageous fortune. This is what makes the public curious about his life, and gives them the hope that they might be able to learn something from it; a misunderstanding which might be amusing for Walsh, but is less amusing for me and every other reader who has forked out $55 to buy his memoir. It is frustrating to be told, while reading a book about a successful and exciting life that fortune is all due to chance; it makes success an unattainable thing dished out randomly by an uncaring universe. Basically, while reading his book I felt like a mug punter, with David Walsh as the house.
12. Should I form a specific moral view about Walsh’s gambling?
13. Should I eat lunch and come back to this later?
14. Should I try to get in contact with Walsh to see what he thinks of this coin-toss review method?
15. Should I count the number of times Walsh references Wikipedia?
16. Should I explain why this annoys me?
Walsh’s frequent reference to Wikipedia is symptomatic of what I find most unappealing about A Bone of Fact: he is constantly explaining things. How mathematical infinity works, how evolution works, what thermodynamics is, what Descartes believed, why Dostoevsky was a genius, why Aristotle was a dick, why religion is bad, why Israelis and Palestinians will never stop fighting, why rape has made us evolutionarily stronger, why vegetarianism is good, why art is important, etc., etc. If I wanted to know about these things, then I would seek out experts in the field, and read their books. Or, I could just go to Wikipedia and read for myself.
At one point in the memoir, Walsh quotes Hemingway: “If a writer… knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things he knows…” I feel like someone—a brave editor, maybe—should have told Walsh that Hemingway’s advice would’ve been super valuable for him. “No one likes a know-it-all. Write about what you actually know. Write about gambling, MONA and your life. Leave out everything else.”
17. To illustrate the insufficient editing, should I quote at length from the section in which Walsh explains why, according to evolution, small testicles are superior?
18. Are you sure?
19. So I should explain about the testicles?
20. Should I describe the similarities between MONA and A Bone of Fact?
After my visit to MONA in 2012, I had the impression that Walsh was a visionary. I was stunned by the museum’s variety, by the fact that I could view a sarcophagus next to video art, and then head to the bathroom to view my own anus. I respected that the museum was almost a shrine to Walsh’s taste, a collection of his fears, desires and insecurities, his despair and awe. Mostly, I enjoyed the feeling of stepping inside the subconscious caverns of his mind and walking around. MONA allowed me to experience art through someone else’s eyes, and this was a distinctly new museum experience.
The impression I have is that Walsh attempted to use this MONA-like method to write A Bone of Fact. Like MONA, the book is a flamboyantly eclectic mix of anecdote, personal philosophy, science, mathematics, literature, and personal wisdom. Like MONA, it disregards the formal conventions of what a memoir is and just does its own thing. Like MONA, it proposes to let us enter Walsh’s mind, to see as he sees, think as he thinks, and then leave with a new perception of the world.
21. Does the MONA method work when writing a memoir?
I’m going to have to break my own rule and disagree with the coin here. I don’t think the MONA-method works for A Bone of Fact. At MONA, Walsh’s personality is expressed through the collection and presentation of other artists’ visions. A Bone of Fact is also, in a way, a collection—a curated compilation of facts, quotes and theories—but the difference is, they’re all regurgitated in Walsh’s very particular voice. Instead of the symphonic cacophony of voices experienced at MONA, A Bone of Fact is more like a manic, incessant, smart-alecky monologue. Instead of writing his story and then letting us make our own minds up about who he is, it feels like Walsh has curated a personality according to how he perceives himself. The result is overbearing showmanship, when what really makes a great memoir is intimacy.
22. Should I come to some sort of conclusion that links all this back to Kerry Packer in Las Vegas?
23. Should I recommend that you read this book?
Flip a coin. If it lands on heads, read it. Tails, don’t bother.