I didn’t think the book could match the film but it does. In fact, I think it’s a masterpiece.
It’s impossible not to picture Paul Newman as Fast Eddie, of course, but this novel is every bit a testament to Tevis’s greatness rather than just the enjoyable source of a celebrated film.
Since he worked in a pool hall Tevis knows his terminology, which adds to the authenticity of the experience. But more than that he’s able to get inside the mind of a player aiming to prove himself, master his self-defeating demons, and summon the will to triumph.
Eddie’s relationship with Sarah pans out differently. Presumably director Robert Rossen and his co-writer Sidney Carroll thought that the film would benefit from the drama of Sarah’s demise. Tevis, though, plays with the ambiguity of a seemingly futile romance and Sarah does not wind up dead in a bathroom.
Bert, Eddie’s new manager, is a cruel, ruthless character played by George C Scott, but in the novel his hard-nosed side is only really revealed at the end.
It’s no mean feat to make a game of pool exciting to read about, whereas it helps when you’re watching Newman and Gleason, brilliantly lit in a real New York pool hall. But the games are genuinely gripping, especially when Eddie plays the aristocratic hustler before the final showdown with his nemesis, Minnesota Fats, who is portrayed as very fat, almost obese, with a facial tic and ponderous movement until he moves around the table, ‘his motions like a ballet’.
The dialogue is perfect, concise but loaded with meaning, and the atmosphere of the pool hall is described so well as to place you right in there amid the smoke and tension.
Eddie is coached in the art of winning big, but ultimately can’t defeat the system that runs big money games. As an outsider in every way he seems destined to lose, but he can always say about pool, as he tells Fats during their first encounter, ‘I’m the best. Even if you beat me, I’m the best.’
A great novel.