Barry Malzberg's UNDERLAY is an underground classic, a comic gem, and a philosopher's guide to the world of horse racing and wagering. The story is narrated by a degenerate horseplayer in hock to the mob to his eye teeth. This unlucky soul has been assigned to "disinter" the body of the "late but famous Harry the Flat" from his resting place under the backstretch at Aqueduct Racetrack, "in deepest Queens" New York. The story that unfolds as the long day proceeds weaves back and forth in time and reminiscence, tying together events and topics as disparate as the assassination of President Kennedy, the role of the racetrack tip sheet, and the sex life of gamblers. While it is tempting to tag Malzberg's masterpiece with stylistic debts to Runyon and Kafka, the fact is that this brilliant but neglected novel is entirely sui generis.


Excerpts from UNDERLAY

All excerpts copyright©1974 by Barry N. Malzberg


My mission is to recover the body of the late but famous Harry the Flat and to present it, only incidentally, to his widow Gertrude, so that he may be given a respectable funeral. It is high time that this honor was paid him. He died four years ago of a cerebral accident and now lies encased in heat and ice, sweat and dust, death and connection, underneath the backstretch of this well-known race track which is one of the top sporting centers, it is widely understood, on absolutely the entire East Coast of the United States. Gertrude is most unhappy about the indignity of Harry's station, to say nothing of his many friends and acquaintances, who did not abandon their friendship for Harry the Flat simply because he died and was thus unable to reimburse his debts. In addition to these emotional factors there is a practical difficulty: his continued presence under the backstretch has been lousing up the mob's figure, this being the prime reason for the recovery action.

Unfortunately, and as is usually the case in this fiction called life, there are complications. The NYRA, for one thing, which is short for the New York Racing Association, the governing authority of racing in this state under the aegis of the popular and successful Nelson A. Rockefeller, would not look kindly upon its backstretch at Aqueduct Racetrack, in deepest Queens, being dug up . . . nor does it appreciate the recreational facilities being used as an arena for anything other than the simpler human passions. Accordingly, as the one charged with this important mission, I must move cautiously and with a certain overriding sense of the dignity of my position.

There are several reasons for this sensation of great pressure which afflicts me, the most important of which is that the recovery must be made today, June 9, 1971, and not a moment later. Precisely at midnight tonight, the bomb which the mob has implanted within my thigh as the signature of their seriousness will explode and blow me out of reach of all saving parlays unless I have, sometime during the interim, presented the body of one Harry the Flat as ransom for being defused. The excellent George Needles, who is the mob specialist in occupational and internal therapy, will do the defusing if given the proper word. If anyone else so much as looks at this area in a compromising fashion the bomb will blow up. I am assured of this by Tony Winner, who has never lied to me about a thing in his life.

This would be an irrevocable disaster, the bomb going off inside me, I mean. I am really only forty-one years old recently, even younger than the great John Fitzgerald Kennedy was when he was assassinated and I retain an even greater enthusiasm than did this famous historical figure for, what I like to think of as, life.



I was the oldest living friend of Harry the Flat when he was with us; now that he is gone he remains my closest dead friend. Furthermore, I am the only one who is sufficiently aware of the metaphysical, not to say philosophical, underlay of so many of his most famous opinions. Thus there is a good deal of sentiment wound into this. It is not an annoyance which I will be removing from the backstretch but a sacrament, meaning that I will take especial care of the decomposing layers of Harry the Flat as I cradle him across the infield lake and out into the parking lot. A less involved person might do work less neat, leaving various evidences for the law.

Also, and aside from all this sentiment, I am in dead hock to the mob, which has their own important reasons for wishing to remove his body. These reasons have nothing to do with salvaging the good will of the widow. The way in which they will aid my recovery is this: they are rigging the eighth race. In this race, Knockover, a one hundred and fifty to one shot, will win by four to five lengths breezing. Thereby, the mob feels, it will cause such astonishment and consternation in the grandstand, infield, clubhouse, and steward's offices that I will be able to stumble into the backstretch undetected and, spade and shovel in hand, do the disinterment, hurl the uncoffined corpse over my strong right shoulder and speed away. There is no possibility that Knockover will not win this race. I have been informed that it has been irrevocably manipulated for him, barring the omnipresent prospect of poor racing luck or blind switches. In which case, of course-well, in which case I will have to remove Harry anyway because the mob has selected today, June 9th, as the target date and there is no tomorrow for the efficient and well-functioning mob.



He hangs over her, mouth open, balancing on the palms, knees at cross-angle to the skylight, looking at the whiteness of the walls, the yellow background, that yawning pit of his wife which seems to smile at him as he guides himself gracelessly into that cavern, feeling it swaddle and surround him while he sucks on her breasts, biting the nipples absently while he computes results, balances, odds-charts-the only way in which he is able to force himself into a state sufficiently abstracted to function.

It is four to five against coming fast. It is seven to two against her coming; even money, however, that if she comes at all she comes first. Make that a round-robin. It is twenty-three to one against simultaneous orgasm, well, make that nineteen to one instead. Nevertheless, even knowing all of this so well he persists; there is really very little alternative after all, the odds are fascinating and in any event there is nothing better to do at the present moment that he has not already done to avoid the situation. Caught in that hush, in that slow, clinging languor one can sense his trembling eyes as he looks with slow, cold astonishment toward the ceiling. The first drops of the parlay begin to build within him.

He surges toward her then, the heart of him caught in a trap larger and containing more torment than any . . . any which he has ever known before . . . any but for this reiterated snatch.



"He's a stiff. What I mean is he don't produce. If he produced, that would be one thing, but half the time he's straight down the drain. The other half he's telling me he's on the way up but I don't see no evidence of the fact. I don't see nothing but that he gets deeper and deeper which I can always tell from his eyes. Call me a pessimist but I have my opinions on this.

"I got to have my head examined or something like that just to string along with a guy like this one let alone be married. But there's something very lovable about him, okay, okay. Anyway, I got to admit that with him every day is a difference. Not that I was getting any younger, either. You never know what's going to happen next with him though except it'll be something bad, but nothing else, so there's all that anticipation which can be really terrific. The other way I know how I would've ended up. This way there are lots of questions You follow?



"I must win or I'm of out business! I must win Tuesday, August 10, 1960, or never be heard from again. This is serious business. Do not destroy this notice. Read it carefully!

"Yes, on Tuesday, August 10, 1960, selected associates and I have elected to put over one of the great sporting COUPS of the New York racing season, a COUP in which investors will find a solid horse, well-placed, in clever hands and ready to win. This horse will go off as a SLEEPER at a guaranteed payment of twelve to one or more!

"This COUP has been in the planning for several months. My associates and I have worked carefully toward this day, using our avenues of connection to assure happiness for selected investors. Now at last the time has arrived. And you are invited to get aboard. Your name has been given me by a confidential source who I cannot mention who assures that your confidence may be respected and your sincere interest in horse-racing cannot be doubted.

"We ask you for no money!

"That is correct, was ask you for no money. My associates and I, we stand behind our predictions one hundred percent, without fear and without favor. If you wish to know the name of this horse you may do so at no fee whatsoever. Simply call us at the number given below between the hours of nine a.m. and twelve noon on Monday, August 9th, 1960.

"Your only obligation will be to forward us the proceeds of a five dollar win bet on this COUP AFTER the race has been run.

"In order to cover the modest expenses for this mailing and to obtain proof of your own serious interest in this once in a lifetime opportunity, we do request only that you give us a small deposit prior to our release of the name of the COUP horse.

"This deposit may be deducted from the eventual sum you will forward when the horse wins. If you will mail this deposit to the address shown below and sign the name of the person to whom you wish the information released, my associates and I will then accept your call on Monday, August 9th, and release to you the name of this horse.

"The deposit required is only fifteen dollars and since the horse must pay more than fifteen to one, you will see how reasonable this small statement of faith and cooperation is.

"This is serious business. We are not fooling! The horse must surely win because if it does not I am out of business. It is not my intention to play on your faith, time, small deposit, or risk unless I can produce for you. So I say once again, as I did before, that this horse will win at odds of no less than twelve to one or better.

"Send your deposit in immediately. If you have a friend who, you feel, might want to accompany you into the COUP, please pass this letter on to him. We must advise you, however, that we will accept only a limited number of investors, inasmuch as the odds must be kept as high as possible on the horse in order to guarantee a real PLUM to my associates, myself, and to those willing to join us in this fantastic day of fun and games at the track on COUP DAY.

"Remember, the deposit necessary is only fifteen dollars, the best investment of your life.

"Only fifteen dollars."



It is a grim, bleak, blank track, this; it seems to have been slammed in colors out of concrete, only those hues-pasteboards, the drab color of tickets-relieve it at all but in their aspect of chewed and ruined candy, somehow only increase the depression, nail to the senses the poison that is in this still, rising air. It looks like a child's toy of a track, imagined to enormous size, lacking the context of maturity and it is instantly apperceptible in this obstacle of a shell that nothing can go on here that will have any tragic dimension whatsoever. No laughter, none of this, none of anything, only small, grim debacles and shame enacted over and again in some frozen graveyard of the spirit, a trick which seems to simultaneously propound and deny responsibility. A dream, a conception this thing, even an escape: call it a mental institution in which the inmates wander around in a kind of perpetual occupational therapy listening to the magnified drone of the Counselor telling them over six hundred speakers that everything will be all right, eventually, somehow, next race, could be. No changes. The tote glimmers and blinks, dazzles out its own messages to the crowd which have nothing to do with horses and in the bowels of the grandstand, in the swelter underneath the plane in which they sit, bodies are packed like fish in their density: mouths opening, gasping querulously, a flicker of newspaper, jot of sweat, a howl of rage the nearest one can come in the apprehension to those emotions which took one here in the first place to deposit him in this house of pulp.

Murder, Murder. Ah, Harry, there is murder here yet.



I have been in love with the remarkable Gertrude nee Hawkins for several years, ever since, in fact, the first time I met her in the company of Harry the Flat on their wedding day.

Harry and Gertrude were wed in the Hollis Avenue Sacred Shrine Union Church of the Sacramental and Beloved Divine reception room on a fine autumn afternoon, and as one of his oldest and closest I was invited to the wedding. This made me participate in the Bringing of Gifts, though I had not previously even glimpsed the bride who had always been kept concealed from the Flat's companions during the period of his courtship. Probably he wanted to lay off his bets and not let her know what kind of acquaintances he was having or not having luck with. Gertrude was then and is now a lovely female with matron-like breasts, full and wide, white and thick in the suddenness of repose and exposure. I dreamed often of the Flat's adventures in paradise until I was informed by her, during our second adulterous tryst, that he had not gone to bed with her more than fifteen times in the course of their marriage. Harry settled for fucking only when he had lost huge bets or felt himself, via an important tip, on the verge of the enormous rim of chance. And all of these events, to make them even less convenient, seemed to occur during the early morning hours, that time being the only period of day when Harry could find an erection.

"You see, you see, he just ain't geared that way," she reminded me, laving my guilt with the flow of desire below and thrust her complacent flesh skillfully into my clamorous mouth. Oh God, I could have died that way: the softness of her flesh entwined with memory; images of the madonna circling thickly into lust, her rising nipple plunging my throat like a dancer, all meaning, all sensation darkened to that high, bright flame of purpose as I probed and probed her again, muttering my Love, Harry's foolishment, the anguish of the machinery into whose pistons we had fallen, cut to ribbons, bright blood moving swiftly, circles of spreading dark, streaming to the floor.



"But why do you want him dug up? He's been buried there quietly all those years; what's the difference? He could stay there until the year ten thousand; how would they ever know it? No one, no one at all could tell."

"No he couldn't. He got to get out of there, that stiff. He always loused us up; now even when he's dead you got no peace."


"You're not supposed to know why."

"But I'm entitled. Think of the risks I got to take here."

"That ain't no matter; you're just the messenger. The hard detail man we call it. If you were supposed to know, I'd tell you. They'd give me the orders because that's the system. I read all about it in this book about the Mob. It was very interesting. I never knew they worked that way."

"I'm entitled to something for the risks."

"So what? It's your problem; I'm not taking them so what the hell?"

"I ought to know."

"I told you, we got our orders. It's the higher ark. I'm not even sure that I know the reasons for it."

"Oh come on, Tony, be reasonable. I'd take it as a personal favor."

"Maybe I don't know."

"Sure you know."

"That was just a joke, okay. I'm an inside man; I know everything. I wouldn't kid you that way, it isn't fair. Of course I know, they tell me everything. They know who the Winner is."

"Tell me then."

"You really want to know?"

"What do you think?"

"Well, if I gotta say it then, he's lousing up the figures, that's what the stupid son of a bitch is doing."

"Huh? Who?"

"Who? That stinking bum, lying under the sod there. He's done something to the dirt, it don't come down even. He's screwing up all the figures, the past performances, he's making figuring impossible. They run over that backstretch and they gain two seconds, lose four seconds, start crossing over in front of the field. They can't tolerate the error no more. Probably he's been doing something to the turf when he started to decompose."

"The burial did this?"

"The burial, fuck the burial, I mean that stiff is lying in there and lousing up everything. For a while they could compensate: Billy Chart was able to figure out speed and windage and variables so we could take the stiff into consideration but since they done so much racing over the track with the dual meets and Belmont being out of action until so late and the December racing and everything, something's happened. The arrangements don't stick. It's getting unpredictable, goddamn it, and we got to get that loser out of here before he louses up everything. I'm telling you, we've having plenty trouble making any kind of results with that kind of stuff going on in there. And then where would we be? We ain't making no money off the conventional operations, they're all taxed and it's mostly public relations. The only area you get yourself a little edge is in the arrangements and now we can't be sure of nothing."

"That's really something."

"It sure is. You tell anyone you're wise, bum, or that I put you up there, I will blow your head off with a shotgun or more likely use some kind of good and efficient hammer which is more reliable if somewhat less cleaner."

"Then if that's so, I got one single question to ask you."

"You got one. Exactly one and no more. I hate to sound like a tough guy or anything but they really make things hell if you don't stand up to it. It's a whole policy."

"If the figures are loused up, how can you be sure you can put over this Knocker?"

"Knockover, dummy. The name of the horse is Knockover. What you got on your mind?"

"I meant Knockover. Couldn't the figures get loused up on that one too?"

"Sure," Tony Winner says, "that's a sure thing, of course it could. But if they do then you get good and loused up too, meaning that you ought to be very concerned and involved with what you're really there to do and the hell with the tip. Forget about the horse. Because everything is chance, life is a chance, and I am sitting in this chair right here this minute only because one bit of sperm won out over a couple billion others and the four guys who sat in this chair years previous had to resign owing to these tiny little accidents with their circulation."