Picks and Pans Review: The Bookmaker's Daughter

updated 12/16/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1991 01:00AM

by Shirley Abbott

Abbott, the profound and passionate author of Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South, turns this time to men—or rather, to one particular man, her "gentleman bandit" father, Alfred Bemont ("Hat") Abbott.

Whether or not Hat was extraordinary, he was certainly different—and as romantic as they come. A bookie by trade, Hat was also, Abbott emphasizes, a bookmaker of another sort: He loved to tell stories. And, as she writes in a conclusion that might as easily serve as introduction, "In the tales that constituted his legacy to me, my father's favorite character was himself."

Proud and dapper, with a pint of whiskey in his pocket, Hat set off each day in Hot Springs, Ark., for the Ohio Club and the Southern Club to take the bets, to make the payoffs. "An honest day's work," he actually called it—and indeed, in the resort town's shady economy, built on hot baths, wagers and political payoffs, it was honest enough. At night, Hat would return to rail against his wife ("You call this a meal?"), resent his parents (in the pinch of the Depression, mean Bemont and hypochondriacal Carrie shared their tight quarters) and reach out to his only child through stories of the past and an unwavering faith in her future ("I never wanted a boy, I wanted you").

Though his two bookmaking lives—gambler and storyteller—rarely collided, when they did, it was with unforgettable drama. Abbott recalls Hat coming home one lucky day and brandishing his winnings: " 'This is a C-note,' he said, his eyes alight.... 'It comes from Latin. C is the Roman numeral for one hundred. You don't know about the Romans, but I'll teach you' "

He taught her about the Greeks, as well, and what the word primeval means and about the sins of his own lather. What Hat did, in short, was instill a love of literature and life that, ultimately, enabled Abbott to recall him so vividly and eloquently. (Ticknor & Fields, $19.95)

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