Forest of Fortune: By Jim Ruland, 288 pgs. By Matthew Hart

Nov 24, 2014

Forest of Fortune is a hard book to define. In my mind, there are two categories of books that are difficult to define: books that are so unorganized and meandering that it’s hard to say what the point of it all was; and books that elude easy definition because it’s impossible to point at one element of the book and say, “That’s what this is.” Forest of Fortuneis of the latter category.

It’s a novel that’s dark and hilarious, illuminating and uncomfortable, rich and page-turning, sweet and tragic, ethereal, painfully real, and unfailingly tragic. It’s possible to be lost within your own zip code. Because wherever you go, there you are. Whatever drugs you take, whatever job you have, whatever love you feel or receive, you still operate within the best and worst aspects of yourself.Forest of Fortuneis a novel about choices, about survival, and about sacrifice.

The novel follows three characters; Pemberton, Lupita, and Alice. Pemberton isn’t morally bankrupt, but he sure ain’t morally wealthy. He’s in advertising, a copywriter from L.A. His flaws are the flaws of his industry: self-indulgent, short sided, predictably depraved. Pemberton’s story begins with him hitting rock bottom. His fiancée dumps him and he finds himself working at an Indian casino, Thunderclap, on the Yukemaya Reservation outside of San Diego. At first, the job is an attempt to get his shit together in order to get his fiancée back. However, his addictions and his past intervene almost the second he gets off the bus.

Alice is an epileptic slot machine maintenance worker at Thunderclap who has been disenrolled from the tribe she grew up in. Growing up with an alcoholic mother and without a father, Alice is forced to work for the tribe that disenrolled her without any of the benefits. Like Lewis Carroll’s fabled Alice, Ruland’s Alice is privy to a reality other than our own. She has visions of a mysterious woman who appears to know something about her and the story has a whole.

Lupita is a Thunderclap regular. She spends her days gambling with her best friend, Guadalupe, an older woman who is the embodiment of wing-nutedness. Lupita’s past and the reason why she practically lives at the casino get unraveled throughout the novel.

The book is punctuated by the seasons and four accompanying interludes that take place outside of the three characters’ time. In these brief moments you glimpse at the machinations of something numinous in the land of the Yukemaya. Strange things are indeed afoot at the Thunderclap Casino. Pemberton is subsisting on a steady diet of booze, drugs, and verbal abuse from his old guard Mad Men-style boss. Alice is having visions and dealing with her pot-selling roommate’s raprock boyfriend. Lupita is worried that her friend’s wing-nutedness has gone too far or in too deep. The three characters swirl around a mysterious slot machine that seems to affix itself in the mind of everyone who comes in contact with it.

Where Forest of Fortune shines for me is in Ruland’s lack of condemnation of both advertising and casino culture. It would be easy to rail against advertising or expound upon casino psychology (two worlds that Ruland is familiar with). But what makes this novel compelling and worthy of multiple readings is in the fact that a treatment of advertising and the intricacies of casino psychology are present in the novel, but they aren’t the driving force of the novel. They inform the novel and are a part of the nuanced landscape in which you get to know the characters and understand their flaws. When I finished the book I felt like I had witnessed an exorcism. Demons are real: cultural demons, historical demons, personal demons. And they seem to like neon lights.

Highly fucking recommended. –Matthew Hart (Tyrus Books, tyrusbooks.com)

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