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The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death

By Colson Whitehead

Doubleday

234 pages, $24.95

By Ed Taylor

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

“I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside.” So begins Colson Whitehead’s odd, flawed, but ultimately interesting nonfiction book “The Noble Hustle.” In seven sections, the first of which is “The Republic of Anhedonia,” the Macarthur “genius” novelist best known for “The Intuitionist” offers up what ostensibly will be the story of his being staked to a seat at the 2011 World Series of Poker by the ESPN publication “Grantland.” However, that anhedonia – defined in an epigram beginning the book as “the inability to experience pleasure” – is more than an interesting intro and framing device throughout the book. It’s a problem. It takes the book 190 pages to find its groove – when the author finally, actually, sits down at the table in Las Vegas on Day One of the WSOP as it’s called here, and the narrative glides to a graceful, evocative, crystalline conclusion.

What precedes that is not really poker, or beef jerky, or even death. It’s about the author, who of course is a major focus in any creative nonfiction writing. However, here it’s about the author in problematic ways: a sour style rooted in perhaps a bad time in his life (circum divorce) that tries too hard at times for hip wittiness. The narrator here is mildly depressive, painfully self-aware, and less interesting than might be hoped for much of the narration.

The book interestingly plays with chronology, leading up to The Event then skipping ahead a year to the author returning to the WSOP as a spectator, then in the climactic section, returning to Whitehead actually playing at the WSOP – the crux of the biscuit as Frank Zappa would say.

At times it’s hard to follow the actual path the writer takes to the showdown because the writing is so arbitrarily associative and laden–leaden with stylized observation and commentary – multiple references and riffs in a row, the regular use of aphoristic sentence fragments – and while relentlessly sarcastic, also relentlessly self-flagellating.

In addition, there’s the Walmart satire problem: it’s too easy to tee off on Vegas or the “Leisure Industrial Complex” or Atlantic City, unless you’re swinging in fresh ways, which isn’t routinely true here.

The book offers an interesting, quick overview of poker’s Internet- and cable-fueled growth over the last 20 years, and reaches take-off speed on the last few feet of runway, as the author takes his seat finally at the WSOP table, and has an experience to tell grandkids or strangers in bars about – “I played in the WSOP.” The narrative ends with elegiac but affirming thoughts about poker and life – and a young daughter. But getting to that end, for the reader – with all due respect for a major contemporary novelist – is a gamble.

Ed Taylor is a Buffalo freelance writer whose new novel “Theo” has just been published by Old Street Publishing.