Date: June 12, 2005
Byline: Judith Long
Books: Games people play
CROSSWORLD: One Man's Journey Into America's Crossword Obsession, by Marc Romano. Broadway, 238 pp., $24.95.
If a seven-letter word for "torch" starting with "c" springs instantly to your mind, read on. If not, or if the answer to "Analyst's lingerie?" ("Freudian slip," of course) fails to induce a groan and a grin, read on anyway. Because Marc Romano's "Crossworld: One Man's Journey Into America's Crossword Obsession" is not just for logomaniacs, cruciverbalists or the "folks who consider a day without doing the New York Times crossword a day misspent." "Crossworld" is an erudite, hilarious visit to a Pickwickian planet.
Romano discovered that planet as a Yale undergrad at a Connecticut house party, where he observed his host's mother solving the Times Sunday puzzle in the 40 minutes it took her to down two stiff pre-breakfast Bloody Marys. He tries the same puzzle (it takes him all day). He's hooked – words such as "addiction" and "compulsion" loom in this tale. He soon needs a fix of several puzzles a day, which he completes in four to 10 minutes. And in 2004, he scales the Everest of puzzledom, competing in the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held in "postapocalyptic" downtown Stamford, Conn., mere miles from where he worked that first fateful puzzle.
From the Fear-and-Loathing-in-Stamford start of that angst-ridden tournament weekend (Romano downs an Ativan to calm his jitters, and his brain turns to Jell-O) to its climactic conclusion (home again, he collapses and winds up in the emergency room – in all the tournament hoopla, seems he neglected to eat for two days), Romano keeps us amused and enlightened while we join him in his ordeal by esoterica, wordplay and time clock.
As he roams the ocher and brown halls and vast ballroom of the Stamford Marriott, Romano introduces us to the rock stars of this arcane world: revered Times puzzle editor and tournament father Will Shortz, "the benign Darth Vader of the crossword business"; Newsday's own puzzle editor, Stanley Newman, "the fastest solver in crossword history"; youngest puzzle constructor Michael (Misha) Shteyman, who spoke no English when he arrived on these shores from Russia, and six years later, at 19, was creating Times puzzles; and "Jeopardy! on acid" constructor Brendan Emmet Quigley, Romano's red-bearded guide, nemesis and reality check. After Romano's late-night bar disquisition on the aesthetics, ethics and metaphysics of crosswords, Quigley looks him in the eye and says, "Marc ... they're just games."
And we get to scope out those who come to indulge their obsession, the 500 or so contestants. "The largest collection of loners this side of the last Kafka family reunion" quips Romano, his name speedily anagrammed into "Omar McAron" and "Aron Corman" by the wags at the bar. Romano finds these über puzzlers to be seriously intelligent, lively and curious "freaks of nature" – a kind and "inherently moral" bunch. They're heroic, in fact, imposing "order on a chaotic world one little white square at a time."
Bonus: "Crossworld" is alive with history (the first crossword appeared in 1913 in the New York World as "word-cross"); lore (Bill Clinton once polished off a tough puzzle in six minutes and 54 seconds while answering interview questions and taking a call from Jesse Jackson); romance (a marriage proposal encoded into the Times puzzle was accepted by the inamorata, an avid puzzler); legend (the famous 1996 Election Day puzzle with two sets of answers – BOBDOLEWINS or CLINTONWINS – depending on your answers to seven clues); tips (how to spot letter patterns and constructors' foibles, store your trivia in "the right mental cupboards," alter your penmanship for speed). You'll also find the seven-letter word for "torch": CRESSET. But you knew that.
Judith Long is the editor of The Nation's British-style cryptic crossword puzzle.