If you had to name a Madison Countian whose achievements registered on a national level, you might name a long ago statesman like Cassius Clay, or a modern-day athlete like Damien Harris.
Just recently, an increasing share of locals have become acquainted with the work of an under-appreciated genius who has posthumously come back into the public eye thanks to an impeccable new series on Netflix.
Born in San Francisco, Walter Tevis joined his family in Richmond at the age of 11. He graduated Model Laboratory High School, then went on to the University of Kentucky. He taught school in several Kentucky communities before eventually becoming a college professor and one of America's most accomplished novelists. Though he ultimately died too young in New York City, he was buried back here in The Richmond Cemetery.
Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason played Tevis characters in the film adaptation of his novel "The Hustler." David Bowie did as well in "The Man Who Fell To Earth," and Tom Cruise joined Newman in "The Color of Money."
Now, after numerous near-misses with film productions, and some 36 years after his death in 1984, Tevis's masterfully rendered tale of an orphaned Kentucky chess prodigy named Beth Harmon has come to Netflix. "The Queen's Gambit" began streaming on Oct. 23.
Tevis created grade A material, and the filmmakers didn't falter. The series currently stands at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and is Netflix's No. 1 offering.
I admit to being in the dark about Tevis until a few years ago when Mt. Vernon author and attorney Carrie Mullins brought "The Queen's Gambit" to my attention. She gave it an endorsement that was hard to ignore, and I wasn't 10 pages in before I understood why.
I blew through the book in a day and a half. The entire novel is engrossing, but one aspect that absolutely carries it is Tevis' propulsive narration of the chess games playing out.
The fact is, I only half-understood what he described, but I followed the action with ease. The quality of his writing was such that mastery of the subject matter wasn't required to grasp the building drama.
I recently published a novel of my own that bears only the faintest similarities to "The Queen's Gambit," but the fingerprints of Tevis' influence are on it.
"Hillbilly Hustle" was published this year by West Virginia University Press, and like "The Queen's Gambit," it is set in Central Kentucky, and it also features a protagonist with substance use issues, somewhat like Harmon's. The scant commonalities essentially end there, except for one other thing.
"Hillbilly Hustle" opens with a poker game. A game of Texas Hold 'Em, to be exact. I initially struggled with how to describe the game play before figuring out the way.
I turned to the local master. I studied Tevis' description of chess games in "The Queen's Gambit" and mimicked it. The result is that even readers who don't play poker understand the scene. The drama and tension come through. Reviews of "Hillbilly Hustle" have all been positive, with Publisher's Weekly calling it a "wry, thrilling debut."
For that I thank Tevis.
As a nod to his influence, I reference his character Harmon on page 123.
Tevis's greatness has outlived him.
Of the six novels he completed in his lifetime, four have been adapted to the screen--two of them since he passed. Given the success of his latest, and his other adapted works, it would be no surprise to see his remaining two get closer looks.
What has also lived on is the influence of his abilities. I recently read that Tevis was also a poker player, and I can only hope he would approve of the work I did in his footsteps.
But to match him is absolutely out of the question. He was, quite simply, one of the greatest American authors of his generation, and he called Madison County, Kentucky his home.
Wesley Browne is a practicing attorney with Browne Law Office, PSC in Richmond. His debut novel "Hillbilly Hustle" was published by West Virginia University Press in 2020 and is available in stores and online wherever books are sold.