June 13, 2014

Colson Whitehead lands in Vegas poker tournament to deal out a good read

Literary novelist Colson Whitehead’s nonfiction “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death” takes readers into a resigned, jaded world of high stakes cards at the 2011 World Series of Poker.

If you pick up Colson Whitehead’s “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death” hoping for betting strategies, how-to-read-the-table tips or meticulous recountings of hand after hand of Texas Hold ’Em, you’ll be disappointed.

Which is fitting, because more than river cards, massive pots and pocket aces, disappointment is Whitehead’s beat in this book.

Whitehead is the laurel-laden literary novelist who has published six genre-bending books of some commercial and significant critical success (a Whiting award, a Guggenheim, a MacArthur “genius” grant). In 2011, after Whitehead finished his most recent book, an editor at Grantland proposed sending the writer to play in, and write about, that year’s World Series of Poker.

It’s not a new idea — Al Alvarez did it for The New Yorker in 1980 and James McManus for Harper’s a decade or so later — but it paid off. Whitehead’s four-part series, “Occasional Dispatches From the Republic of Anhedonia,” from which this book is adapted, were relentlessly mordant and eminently readable.

Whitehead here is a connoisseur of ennui, a citizen of “the Republic of Anhedonia,” a made-up country whose citizens are “the shut-ins, the doom-struck, the morbid of temperament … all those who walk through life with poker faces 24/7 because they never learned any other way” and for whom “luck is merely the temporary state of outrunning your impending disasters.”

This idea works because Whitehead makes it his own. He has to. The only way Whitehead could top McManus — who detailed, among other things, his third-place World Series finish in the book “Positively Fifth Street” — would be to win the whole thing, an almost preposterous prospect.

Whitehead doesn’t pretend otherwise. “Don’t tell me you didn’t realize this was a sports movie,” he tells us toward the back of the book. “But it’s a ’70s sports movie, and you know how those end.”

Right: The heroes lose. But those movies are also often bleakly funny, and so is Whitehead. When he’s not mapping the contours of his imaginary homeland (“We have no borders, but the population teems. … We have no national bird. All the birds are dead.”) or detailing his somewhat lackluster training trips to Atlantic City (with its bus terminal’s “wee-hour convocation of squalor”), he’s doing his best imitation of an existential Rodney Dangerfield:

“I have a good poker face because I’m half-dead inside.” That’s the book’s first line, but the routine continues:

“I contain multitudes, most of them flawed.”

“I hadn’t been glared at with such hate by two people since couples therapy.”

“I can’t help it if I understand that everything tends to ruin.”

OK, so that last one isn’t very funny, but a man who calls his own book “‘Eat, Pray, Love’ for depressed shut-ins” is not going to always give his audience what it wants.

That said, there is poker in this book. We get a sense of how tournament poker differs radically from the home game. Most of tournament poker is waiting — folding bad hands and waiting for good ones. In home games, the stakes are lower and the point isn’t so much to win money as it is to hang out with your pals. But in tournament poker, you don’t have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to. You just wait.

“By disposition,” Whitehead says, “I was keyed into the entropic part of gambling, which says that, eventually, you will lose it all. The House always wins.”

That knowledge — and its concomitant attitude of resignation — informs this book and, we are given to believe, Whitehead’s worldview.

And yet, Whitehead rouses himself. He has come back from the brink on the second day of the seven-day tournament, having outlasted hundreds of players. He just needs to make it through a few more hands to make it to Day 3, a serious accomplishment for an amateur. He gets on the phone to his coach back in New York, who gives him a list of things to keep in mind, and we think that just maybe, he’ll make it.

He thinks so, too: “No more negative thinking, despite its centrality to my day-to-day philosophy … I wasn’t depressed, I was curating despair. I wasn’t half dead, but half alive.”

It’s the closest thing this sports movie has to a pep talk. Not quite exultant, but also not despairing, Whitehead returns to the table to finish out Day 2 and, well, you know how this movie ends.

Sebastian Stockman is a lecturer in English at Northeastern University.

The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death, by Colson Whitehead (256 pages; Doubleday; $24.95)

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