30 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Negatively fifth street,
This review is from: The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death (Hardcover)
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You know what would be a great story? A novelist and casual home-game poker player gets sent to Las Vegas by a magazine. Using his expense money to enter a satellite tournament, he'd win to buy into the main event at the World Series of Poker. He'd get to the final table, and hobnob with top pros and old-style outlaw Vegas royalty, while thinking of life and friends and wife and kids. Between hands he'd get involved in a murder trial of a stripper accused of using a horror-movie technique to dispatch a casino owner. The whole tangled tale would climax in a double lap-dance session.
That, of course, was Jim McManus' great Positively Fifth Street. Take away the murder, stripper, great title, lap dance, celebrities, constructive thinking and journey from lowly satellite seat to the final table and you have Colson Whitehead's interesting slacker version. It's much shorter without all the collateral stuff, and is intensely negative both in the sense accentuating unpleasant aspects of everything and showing more interest in what is missing than what is happening.
The Noble Hustle belongs to an older poker tradition, the gritty decay of The Man with the Golden Arm and The Cincinnati Kid (the books, not the movies in which star power obscures the message). But this is Generation X Brooklyn and leisure-industrial complex casinos, not illegal private games in Depression-era Cincinnati or post-WWII Chicago. The protagonist is a couch potato who has lost interest (or never had it) in his life and his marriage, not a heroin addict right out of jail or a rambling-gambling man unable to accept his position in life nor change it. The author does not engage life with a bang, but with a whimper.
Out of this affectless half-hearted struggle emerges an engaging account of a subtle metamorphosis. Add some manic gonzo energy and lots of drugs and you'd have something like Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (or better, another magazine commission about a gambling/sporting event: The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved). The author portrays his journey as changing himself from soft and unappetizing fatty raw meat to delicious, lean and tough beef jerky; not through trials by fire, but slow, gentle sunlight.
The writing is crisp and funny, recursive, ironic and mockingly self-referential. But all the posturing and artifice does not obscure the clear human voice. It's a simple, little story, barely more than an anecdote, but it carries as much weight as much longer works. You can read it for the pleasure of the writing, or for the insight. Befitting its negative orientation, you will not have favorable or unfavorable feelings about the protagonist-author, but you will have intense sympathy for his absent ex-wife.