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Colson Whitehead’s ‘Noble Hustle’ takes on Vegas’ WSOP, kind of

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Chuck Twardy

Three and a half

The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death By Colson Whitehead, $25.

It’s not “Call me Ishmael,” or even “Mother died today,” but Colson Whitehead’s “I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside” is a swell way to open a book, whether it’s about poker or not. Whitehead’s The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death is about poker, all right—as Moby Dick is about whaling and The Stranger is about North African beachcombing.

Clearly, this is a good deal for Whitehead. The buzz-y, mid-career novelist (Zone One, Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist), Pulitzer finalist, Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow parlays Grantland’s assignment to play in Las Vegas’ World Series of Poker into a book about stepping up his game, at and away from the table.

Whitehead is a more than amiable narrator—as entertainingly skeptical, self-doubting and therapy-stricken as New Yorkers come. And he doesn’t drive. As he learns to play more adroitly, the newly divorced father negotiates existential encounters with his dead half, wandering in “Anhedonia.” Staked to the big game with two months to prepare, he trades semi-regular friendly outings for Big Mitches, Methy Mikes and tarted-up servers barking, “Baverges!” Whitehead bus-commutes to Atlantic City, the minor leagues, essentially, to practice what he’s learning from poker prose and through consultations with a personal trainer.

He even gets a coach, WSOP veteran Helen Ellis, who encourages him to play “position” at the table, the dynamics of different numbers of players. Later, watching her play, he wishes he could be her “Magic Negro”—you know, from Blind Side-like movies, in which the black guy the story should be about helps the white people overcome difficulties, or themselves.

Whitehead’s offhand wit prevails throughout the book, even when, jumping ahead in the story, he implores you to tag along “with that old friend of yours, your f*ckup friend.” Even in moments of self-importance like this one, Whitehead knows Anhedonia is not hell, and he’s no Virgil. He has a novelist’s sense of pacing, but he lacks a journalist’s thoroughness. Sometimes you wish the book were more about poker.

But credit Whitehead with defending Las Vegas. He opens another chapter with: “I pity people who’ve never been to Vegas.” There’s no shortage of literary disdain for the city, as locals know, but Whitehead says Vegas bashers miss the point: “The world is a disease you shake off in the desert.” And face it, Vegas is hardly Anhedonia.

Find more by Chuck Twardy at chucktwardy.com.

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