“Walter Tevis wrote six novels and a surprising number made high-profile leaps to the screen.”

From a New York Times story by Nancy Wartik headlined “Walter Tevis Was a Novelist. You Might Know His Books Better as Movies”:

The popular Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” has done for chess what Julia Child once did for French cooking. Chess set sales have skyrocketed; enrollment in online chess classes has surged. . . . The novel that inspired the show, first published in 1983, has been on The New York Times’s trade paperback best-seller list for five weeks.

Yet little attention has been paid to Walter Tevis, the author whose creation has stirred all the commotion.

Tevis once pegged himself as “a good American writer of the second rank.” But Allan Scott, the screenwriter who first optioned “The Queen’s Gambit” in the 1980s, disagrees. . . .

“I think very highly of Tevis,” he said in an email. “I think he was one of the best American writers of the 20th century. ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ lays out a terrific story very simply. Child, mother killed, orphanage, touch of genius, addiction. It’s Dickensian.” (It took decades to bring the book to the screen, Mr. Scott said, because studios thought the subject of chess was a commercial dead-end.)

Born in 1928, Tevis wrote six novels, a surprising number of which made high-profile leaps to the screen: “The Hustler,” about a young pool shark played by Paul Newman; “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” starring David Bowie as a lonesome alien; and “The Color of Money,” a follow-up to “The Hustler,” which won Mr. Newman his first Oscar. Tevis’s 1980 science fiction book, “Mockingbird,” a commentary on humanity’s dwindling interest in reading, has long had a modest cult following.

Tevis was a family man who played board games and fished with his kids; a popular professor of writing and literature at Ohio University in Athens; a cat-lover and movie aficionado; and a talented amateur chess and pool player. He was pale and gangly; some of his students called him “Ichabod Crane.” He was also a three-pack-a-day smoker, a serious gambler and an alcoholic who made several suicide attempts. His fiction often plumbs his psyche, metaphorically. . . .

Tevis considered his terrain to be the world of underdogs.

“I write about losers and loners,” he told this newspaper in 1983. “If there’s a common theme in my work, that’s it. I invented the phrase ‘born loser’ in ‘The Hustler.’ In one way or another I’m obsessed with the struggle between winning and losing.”

Tevis was born in San Francisco, into what he called a “feelingless, uptight” home. His parents moved to Kentucky when he was 10. Because young Walter had a heart condition, his parents left him behind in a convalescent home, where he spent months drugged on phenobarbital like Beth Harmon, the main character in “The Queen’s Gambit.”. . .

The day he turned 17, Tevis joined the Navy. On a ship home from Okinawa, he met Hilary Knight, who went on to illustrate the Eloise books. The two connected instantly, Mr. Knight, now 94, recalled, because both were “total misfits.”

“We were two people in a dream world, though his was much more logical than mine,” Mr. Knight said. “The other crew paid little or no attention to us. They didn’t want to know these weirdos. Walter was too smart, and the ship was full of dumbbells. We had a great time laughing about everything.”

“The Hustler,” drawn from Tevis’s rough-and-tumble pool hall experiences before and after the war, came out in 1959, followed by “The Man Who Fell to Earth” in 1963. Then, Tevis published almost nothing until 1980. He and his wife, whom he met when they taught at the same high school, raised two children while Tevis was at Ohio University. He played chess and shot pool, often with his colleague Daniel Keyes, who wrote “Flowers for Algernon.” Tevis drank heavily and his marriage suffered. Even so, his children remember Tevis as a devoted parent. . . .

In the mid-1970s, Tevis sobered up, partly with help from Alcoholics Anonymous. Deeply frustrated by his writer’s block, he got a divorce and decided to try his creative luck in Manhattan. He began a relationship with, and eventually married, Eleanora Walker, who worked for his agent. He reconnected with Mr. Knight: “We became great friends again,” Mr. Knight said.

Tevis also regained his writerly mojo, finishing four more novels and a collection of short stories. He helped convince Paul Newman to star in the movie version of “The Color of Money.” He also wrote “The Queen’s Gambit” during those years. The writer Tobias Wolff called it an “overlooked masterpiece.”

“Tevis has a gift for vivid characterization and propulsive narratives,” Mr. Wolff said in an email. “His style is direct and efficient, never calling attention to itself; yet it grows in power through the course of a novel by its very naturalness.”. . .

In a 1981 interview, Tevis said he’d realized in middle age that “life is worth living.” He hoped to write one book per year for the rest of his life. Just three years later, he died of lung cancer, at 56.

Speak Your Mind

*