Columbus This Week - January 1st, 2004

Worthington Library salutes Walter Tevis

Month-long program focuses on creator of The Hustler

By Craig McDonald (Staff Writer)

Walter Tevis penned what is arguably the greatest novel ever written about the game of pool.

Three of Tevis' seven books have also been made into successful films.

The Kentucky-born author wrote several well-regarded mainstream novels including The Hustler, The Queen's Gambit and The Color of Money.

He successfully crossed genres with a handful of cherished volumes of speculative fiction - The Man Who Fell To Earth, The Steps of the Sun and Mockingbird, which was nominated for a Nebula award for best novel.

Tevis also taught creative writing at Ohio University for nearly 15 years - a period of instruction valued by his many students.

Despite these accomplishments, Tevis did not view himself as a literary success.

A glance at the Tevis bibliography reveals a conspicuous gap between published novels.

The explanation for that creative void also points toward a central theme underpinning much of Tevis' fiction, according to Worthington resident Kacey Kowars.

Kowars has published several essays and articles on Tevis. He has also interviewed Tevis' family and associates and reviewed the late author's papers for a prospective Tevis biography.

On Jan. 7, Kowars will direct a special discussion of Tevis' first novel, The Hustler, at 7:30 p.m. at the Old Worthington Library (820 High St.) - the first in a series of presentations focusing on Tevis' books and film adaptations.

At 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 14, the library will screen the acclaimed 1961 film adaptation of The Hustler starring Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson and Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats.

The program will conclude on Jan. 21 with a 7:30 p.m. program focusing on Tevis' other novels and short stories.

Kowars' interest in Tevis began with his reading of Mockingbird, a novel of speculative fiction that also touches on the concept of addiction and recovery.

According to Kowars, Tevis crashed out of the gates with his first novel about the clash of two pool hustlers. The book and subsequent film, Kowars said, in many ways reinvented the game of pool.

"He actually created the pool hall industry, almost," Kowars said. "After that movie, bowling alleys started putting pool tables in and Brunswick got six months behind on producing tables."

Tevis' book also inspired a number of pool players active in the late 1950s and early 1960s to claim to be the inspirations for the characters of "Fast Eddie" and "Minnesota Fats."

The best known of these false claimants was an overweight man named Rudolph Wanderone, who appropriated the name "Minnesota Fats" and began collecting billiard endorsement deals and netting appearances on televised matches with Willie Mosconi, Utley Puckett and Luther Lassiter, among others.

Wanderone, particularly, frustrated the creator of "Minnesota Fats."

Tevis insisted, Kowars said, "that later editions of The Hustler carry a preface that said 'I made up Minnesota Fats just as Walt Disney made up Donald Duck.'" He insisted that any later publications say that Rudolf Wanderone was a fraud and that Minnesota Fats was a figment of his imagination ... in the world we live in today, Walter would have probably sued (Wanderone) and won money."

When Wanderone died in 1996, Kowars published an article in Billiards Magazine reiterating Tevis' disclaimers regarding the bogus "Minnesota Fats."

Although he wrote the definitive pool novel, Kowars said that a bout of "St. Vitus' dance" - involuntary movements often associated with attacks of rheumatic fever - at age 10 weakened Tevis' health and permanently affected his hand-eye coordination, limiting his own abilities on the pool table.

"He did hustle pool with his best friend, Toby Kavanaugh," Kowars said. "Toby owned a pool hall and came from a very rich family and he was the hustler. Walter would go in and set up the games."

Tevis' weakened health would inform his second novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth, the story of a frail extraterrestrial which was later adapted to film by Nicolas Roeg starring David Bowie.

Despite his early success, Tevis still felt he wasn't writing to the level that he should be. "Donald Justice, a poet who led the Iowa Writers' Conference poetry division for many years," Kowars said, shared a story about Tevis attending a writers' workshop in Iowa.

Justice found it "bizarre" to be sitting at the Iowa Writers' Conference with a group of aspiring, unpublished authors and Tevis, Kowars said, "who was 31 years old and had just published The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth" and wanted "to become a serious writer."

Tevis, who once described himself as a "good American writer of the second rank," succumbed to the same trap as too many other successful authors before him - alcohol - and effectively cul-de-saced his writing career for nearly two decades. All of Tevis' novels in one way or another, Kowars believes, are informed by Tevis' battles with alcohol.

Kowars said that Tevis made the transition to the academic world, eventually securing his long-held post at Ohio University: "He wanted to be a serious writer and he did not see his first two books as being serious literature."

In a recorded interview, Tevis explained that he eventually sought treatment for his drinking in Columbus, Ohio, and, leaving his teaching post, returned to writing fiction.

"Walter came to a point...where he found he left his best work in the classroom," Kowars said. "He had a very successful career at Ohio University - it was not tainted by the alcoholism or anything. He just couldn't write and teach at the same time."

Tevis published a flurry of new novels - mainstream and speculative fiction - before being diagnosed with lung cancer. Tevis died in 1984 and is buried in Kentucky.

The author died just eight days after publishing The Color of Money - a sequel to his first novel that reunites a much older Eddie Felson and Minnesota Fats for a series of matches to be televised on cable television.

In the sequel, it is learned that Felson has spent the decades since the events recorded in The Hustler running a pool hall rather than playing professionally. Tevis could be speaking of himself as much as of his character, Eddie Felson, when a woman remarks to Felson: "You sat on your talent for twenty years."

While The Hustler and its sequel provide appropriate bookends for Tevis' literary career, Kowars said. Tevis probably undertook the sequel in the early 1980s as a money-making project and with a sense that "his health was bad."

The author met with Paul Newman to size up his interest in a sequel, but according to Kowars, Newman did not want to make the film if Jackie Gleason was to reprise his role as the elder pool hustler.

"Newman said that Gleason had done the Smokey and the Bandit movies," Kowars explained, "and he didn't think he had the credibility to play Minnesota Fats anymore."

Newman's resistance to Fats' reappearance - a key element in Tevis' novel - explains why Martin Scorsese's 1986 film of The Color of Money bears so little resemblance to Tevis' last book.

Now, nearly 20 years after Tevis' death, many of his books, including the two pool novels and The Queen's Gambit, about a young female chess player, remain in print.

And, as Kowars points out, you can walk into any Blockbuster and find copies of the three films to date that have been adapted from Tevis' novels - testament to the enduring power of works whose worth was questioned by their creator.