Mark Cramer’s Tropical Downs Ushers in America’s Gambling Century

In his novel Tropical Downs, prolific handicapping author Mark Cramer creates a clever, risk-assessing savant named Matt Bosch. Cramer’s portrayal of the worldly, cerebral Bosch rinses centuries of mud off the “gambler” of popular lore and religious screeds.

Not all the mud, but enough of it to yank thoroughbred handicapping out of the cultural scrapyard and parade it before America’s growing legion of slots fanatics and lottery lemmings.

With Tropical Downs (and his prior novel Scared Money) Cramer has spawned a new genre of fiction. I call it “Betting Literature,” or “Bet Lit” for short.

Bet Lit mixes artful storytelling with valuable betting tips. It normalizes discussions and meditations about gambling strategies rather than demonizing or, possibly worse, aggrandizing them. Bet Lit is the first and, so far, only form of fiction that treats gambling as a normal, everyday activity. And Mark Cramer, so far, might be the only author in the field.

The Story

Cramer sets the story in Bolivia, where he once lived. He masterfully combines his intimate knowledge of racing, Bolivian history and politics, and jazz to deliver a textured novel that’s part travel guide, part betting guide and a wholly captivating suspense story.

Tropical Downs, the fictional racetrack at the center of the plot, is a development project planned by wealthy men looking to exploit cheap land and labor. They want to lower the costs of capturing gambling revenue by building a track in Bolivia. Caught in the middle of this plan are the indigenous people occupying the land and Matt Bosch, who clumsily gets hired to con them into moving elsewhere.

Bosch entangles himself with violent power-brokers. His business ties put both he and his wife at risk, and the best way out is to find a few solid overlays. Through Bosch’s musings and actions readers are treated to great handicapping insights. Fans of fiction might not want to put the book down long enough to take notes, but horseplayers will be torn between reading on and pausing to transcribe the betting angles.

The Readers

Those diverging interests present a stumbling block for generating interest in this book. Cramer pens exquisite passages, from smatterings of philosophy to gorgeous descriptions of the Andean terrain. He also lays out betting strategies sure to fascinate any horseplayer. Can such a genre-busting effort find a wide audience?

The answer to that might be found in our cultural past performances. (See the section “A Bit About Bet Lit” at the end of this essay.)

The Themes

Through most of Tropical Downs we’re trapped in a dark place with Cramer’s hero, in the windowless cellar of crony capitalism. But Cramer backlights Bosch’s dark and desperate circumstances with the eternal hope of the horseplayer and the stunning potential of combining relevant data, sound logic and creative thinking. In other words, with handicapping.

This measured hopefulness separates Tropical Downs from similar genres like pulp novels, crime fiction and noir. In those literary forms, the hero’s fight against “the Man” or rage against the machine features odds too steep to overcome. Cramer’s story, instead, calls to mind a great line from a Leonard Cohen song:

“There is a crack that runs through everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”

Using the sharp edge of a key trainer stat or some pedigree info, Bosch works at the tiny hole in the darkness surrounding him and widens the crack that lets the light get in. And with a clever blend of art and instruction Tropical Downs (and Bet Lit novels that are sure to follow it) holds the potential to enlighten a growing gambling nation.

Roger LeBlanc

(Click here to buy  Tropical Downs at amazon.com.)

A Bit About Bet Lit

Back in the US glory days of the 1940s and ‘50s, contrarian writers churned out cheap, pulp novels exposing the underbelly of the American Dream. Many of these books, despite sales finishing furlongs from any best-seller lists, became classics.

Their subjects? Misanthropes, down-and-out decent folks and outright sociopaths. Pulp writers took hold of the snag in the fine suit of the American success story and yanked.

Tropical Downs resembles this literary tradition more than any other. A few similarities illustrate the novel’s bloodlines:

  • As it was for pulp and noir fiction in their infancy, the core audience for Tropical Downs is tiny. It is us, the ever-shrinking society of horseplayers. And like those genres in their infancy, Bet Lit tugs at the threads of older art forms and picks at the sordid globs of gum that others celebrate as the glue that holds society together.
  • Like other radical forms of expression, this novel recasts key players in society. The billionaire goes from celebrated success story to prison fodder. The degenerate gambler becomes the clever iconoclast and sympathetic Everyman.
  • Pulp crime novels often exposed the reader to intricate details of a particular occupation. If skimming pills from a pharmacy was the hero’s brilliant idea to strike it rich, writer and reader skulked through the local drugstore’s compounding room and dispensary for a quick seminar on pharmacology. Cramer follows suit in Tropical Downs, with his hero giving readers a tour of OTBs and crash courses in deciphering racing forms.
  • Just as in Jim Thompson’s classic pulp novel The Getaway, the hero here scrambles one step out of the frying pan and two steps back into the fire through much of the story. The forces pursuing both Matt Bosch and Thompson’s bank-robbing hero, Doc McCoy, possess unmatchable power and inexhaustible resources.
  • And just like many pulp novels, Tropical Downs finds value in things mainstream folks consider refuse. In The Getaway, Doc McCoy hides under a pile of manure to escape a police dragnet. In Tropical Downs, Bosch finds betting value by digging through dunghills of handicapping info tossed aside by other bettors.

Pulp fiction novels became popular because pulp writers refused to sugar-coat the economic hardships many people faced. As hard times among the middle class and corruption among the political and economic elite repeatedly made headlines, the pulps gained prominence. They eventually gained relevance far beyond the imaginations of major publishers.

Americans again face steep economic odds (stagnant wages), bad post positions (sandwiched between two political parties intent on serving the ultra-rich) and lots of bumping around the turns (outsourcing of jobs, monopolization of media, diminishing rights of privacy). Countercultural art forms will soon thrive again. Let Bet Lit lead the way!

(Click here to buy  Tropical Downs at amazon.com.)