Jerusalem Poker by Edward Whittemore. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $10.95.

Who, then, is Edward Whittemore and why isn't he famous? Obviously a man capable of epic romance, who proved himself four years ago with the publication of Quins Shanghai Circus, a counterthriller of enormous ambition, wit. and tenderness. He is, in fact. one of only a half-dozen novelists my wife will let me buy in hardcover. Whittemore's second book was Sinai Tapestry, though, and it was a disappointment: a bizarre and often brilliant conundrum, it left the reader with little more than hints and guesses. Marvelous characters, situations and settings were established and as suddenly abandoned. As a novel it seemed to be a case of arrested development, as if the author had tired of his own imagination before the reader had or, more likely, he'd simply thrown up his hands and cried "It's too much! I'm insane" Predictably reviewers scratched their heads and set the book aside without a word. What did they know? What did I know?

Now Whittemore has published his third novel, Jerusalem Poker, and the news is very good indeed. It turns out that Sinai Tapestry was the first in a projected quartet of novels revolving around those same characters and themes, which only appeared to have been abandoned. Sinai Tapestry, then, was an overture rather than a failed symphony. Jerusalem Poker amplifies its predecessor, fleshing out the skeletal framework of a fabulous adventure. The second novel is redeemed and made whole by the third.

For those haven't read Whittemore, he presents himself as one of the last. best arguments against television. He's an author of extraordinary talents, albeit one who eludes comparison with other writers. His sensibility bears a remote resemblance to that of Torn Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) and his world view (if that's the term) reminds me of Joseph Heller before he blundered into therapy. And yet, because Whittemore gives us some reason to have hope for his characters, his humor is not so much black as it is dark blue. Unlike Tom Robbins's, his perspective is more universal than generational: that is, he doesn't remind me constantly of the 1960s. Another writer with whom Whittemore is sometimes compared is the alleged Thomas Pynchon. The comparison makes sense because Whittemore, like Pynchon, is a fine writer who can imagine characters and conspiracies that are bigger both of us, dear reader. Pynchon, however, is a novelist who sometimes as in Gravity's Rainbow writes too well. He sets out self-consciously, to create Literature in the same way that a sniper might stalk his quarry through the Mekong Delta: step after step, step after step, he moves forward without bending a twig until BANG - another sentence lies dead on the page. The author of Jerusalem Poker is not so grim.

So what's it about? Well, it's like this:

The Ottoman and Hapsburg empires have collapsed; the nineteenth century has ended. and its successor has commenced with the usual inaugural bloodbath (World War I). On a cold day in Jerusalem, with "snow definitely in the air'" (a temporal blizzard on the metaphorical level lads ) three exiles - an Arab. a Jew. and a Christian - deal out cards in a dirty cafe. Thus begins the Great Jerusalem Poker Game that will continue for twelve years and determine which of the three heroes will gain clandestine control of "everyone's Holy City. For Cairo Martyr, a blue-eyed black whose shoulder. is the temporary refuge of an albino monkey given to bouts of onanism., Jerusalem is the stepping-stone to a vengeful sacrilege he aspires to commit in Mecca.

Elsewhere, however a mad Albanian fascist of enormous wealth and transcendental paranoia is rapidly going insane as he inhales: mercury fumes in the course of alchemical experiments designed to provide him with the Philosopher's Stone He is Nubar Wallenstein founder of the Albanian-Afghan Sacred Band, an elite strike force of homosexual peasant boys whose militaristic revels are to brought to a sudden halt by the decapitation of Wallenstein's lover, an alcoholic Afghan prince. Finding it prudent to leave Albania, Nubar takes residence in a Venetian palazzo beside the Grand Canal. The sole heir of "Madame Seven Percent", herself the architect of a successful multinational conspiracy to divide the oil reserves of the Middle East among a handful of firms,. Nubar is also the founder and Top Bongo of the Uranist Intelligence Agency (UIA) - a private apparat of criminal literary agents turned spies. In an effort to fathom the secret nature of the Great Jerusalem Poker Game, while at the same time pursuing the Stone with unusual vigor and viciousness, Nubar targets the UIA against the Holy City's cardplayers. Unfortunately he has little inclination to read the intelligence reports written by the secret agents of Dead Sea Control. Instead, he haunts the plazas of Venice by night, haranguing nervous passersby with lies about the Albanian-Afghan Sacred Band (conveniently renamed in the days after his lover lost his head, the All-Afghan Sacred Band). It's giving little away, as they say, to reveal that Nubar comes to an unhappy end in the palazzo as the Great Jerusalem Poker Game draws to a close in 1933.

That's a rough sketch of what the book's "about" which isn't a very useful way to describe it because Jerusalem Poker takes place within the framework of its predecessor novel., Sinai Tapestry - a book that spans centuries and sets the mysteries spinning (Who is Plantagenet Strongbow? Why has he written a thirty- three-volume study of "Levantine Sex?" What relationship does he bear to the Sinai Bible? Why is his son running guns in a hot-air balloon in the desert And - by no means finally - why are the Wallenstein males, fathers and sons through the centuries, all insane when no one of them happens to be related to another? And how can this be?). This first half of the quartet. then sets in motion an epic of profound invention, one that promises to be as fascinating and self contained as Lord of the Rings.

Whittemore is more easily compared with Tolkien than with other writers who come to mind. His novels, remind me of the tragic hilarity of Buster Keaton and, in a way, of the Watts Towers-those implausible and bathetic spires in Southern California, cement assemblages of graffiti and broken glass. His books are sorrowing delights, reflective and heavily plotted. The milieu is one with which readers of espionage novels may think themselves familiar, and yet it's wholly transformed - by the writer's wild humor, his mystical bent and his bicameral perception of history and time. As this suggests, the contradictions in Jerusalem Poker and the other novels are wholly intentional. The author appears to be a ... well, a sort of berserk Tantric adept of catholic experience and Catholic upbringing: the .Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, and the two Marys are very much at large in all his books. The world they operate in is a timeless one in which historical events are repeated ad infinitum: the same crucifixions and massacres are carried out against the same innocents by the same lunatics for the same reasons - nasty sex and filthy lucre - forever and ever, amen. The massacre at Mukden (in Quins Shanghai Circus) is one with the butchery at Smyrna (in Sinai Tapestry) and with the periodic rape of the Holy City by various barbarian armies (.in Jerusalem Poker). Only the names and the uniforms change. Time, then, is seen as a continuum in the literal sense of the word and in the context of Whittemore's florid vision, anachronisms have the force of revelation. Thus. One of his protagonists, the formidable Irish rebel and gunrunner named O'Sullivan Beare, can be found on a nostalgic journey flying a Sopwith Camel across the deserts of the Sinai while wearing the uniform of a Crimean War hero, his only cargo a wicker basket of fresh figs and bottles of home-brewed Erse poteen dated AD 1122. (As for the character who's 3.000 years old, an antiquities dealer garbed in a Crusader's helmet that sends an almost continuous shower of rust into his weeping eyes, his story is even more complex and the reader would do well to sort it out himself.

This isn't to say that Whittemore is without fault. His romanticism occasionally descends to the sentimental The relationships between characters and events are frequently so byzantine that expository passages sometimes serve only to remind one that the author is writing in four dimensions while the reader has been left in the third. Moreover, Whittemore does tend to go on a bit at times. And as for his apparently mystical regard for the "unbroken sensual wheel ... revolving through time", I find it no more convincing than Celine's inverted politics or Yeats's obsession with the phases of the moon. But these are mere cavils, obligatory in a review.

If Whittemore was no more than an "entertainer" his novels would be worth their price. But he does something more difficult than intellectual vaudeville. He assassinates the banal, revealing the authentic current of madness that courses through human affairs, reminding us that the fantastic is ubiquitous, invisible only because We've shut our eyes to it. Listen to Stern and 0'Sullivan Beare:

Who was I?

Well I'll tell you then. The very article, that's who you were. Himself

Who's that?

God. Now how's that for a case of mistaken identity? It beats Strongbow by more than a little and as I've often said, we have to give Haj Harun credit, we do. When he limps out there into the desert to find his way to Mecca, he sees the sights. Well this sight, and none can match it, occurred at dawn. You were up in your balloon running guns and when you came down at dawn to hide out you nearly landed right on top of Haj Harun, who naturally thought you were God coming down to reward him for his three thousand years of trying to defend the Holy City, always on the losing side. It must have been around 1914, remember it now? A broken-down old Arab in the desert at dawn tottering on spindly legs? His eyes permanently feverish with dreams from the Thousand and One Nights? And you coming down in your balloon and him prostrating himself and asking you if you would tell him your name? Remember?

Yes, I do now.

Well how about that then?

Stem smiled sadly. He stared down at his fists and said nothing.


It's not funny, whispered Stem after a moment. To be rewarded by a petty gunrunner in a balloon. It's not funny. Not when you have faith the way Haj Harun does.

Hold on there, said Joe, you're getting it all wrong. Not rewarded by you, rewarded by God. Listen, you've never seen eyes on this earth shine like Haj Harun's when he talks about meeting Stem in the desert at dawn. Stem, he murmurs, and his whole face glows with strength enough to defend the Holy City, always losing of course, for another three thousand years. Stern, he says, God manifesting Himself at dawn in the desert for me. And 1 told Him, he says, that I knew God has many names and that each one we learn brings us closer to Him, and I asked Him His name that day in the desert at dawn and He deigned to tell me, finding some virtue in my mission, even though I've always failed. Stern, he murmurs, and he's ready for anything, and nothing can stop him now or ever. And I tell you that's the way he saw it out there so that's the way it was, and you're the one who did it, Stern. Eyes that shine like that, it's enough to make a man cry. So you've got to let him have his due, Stern. He worked hard for that moment to come, and it finally did come, and he deserved it. And if God turns out to be a gunrunner crossing the desert in a balloon in 1914? Well what can we say about that. If that's the way it is, then you and me, we just have to accept it. We might prefer another vision of God but that's the one that came to the man who deserved a vision of God. Me, I've always known Haj Harun sees more than the rest of us. You wouldn't argue with that, would you?



©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016