The Short Version: In 2011, novelist/Twitterer/notable citizen of Anhedonia Colson Whitehead was staked to play in the World Series of Poker by Grantland. This is his story – a story of poker, of beef jerky, and of uproariously dry wit. (…I don’t think anyone actually dies in the course of the book.)
The Review: Some might say I’m going about Colson Whitehead all wrong. I saw him speak before I read a word of his prose… and then I read his zombie novel, now I’m reading his non-fiction about poker. In fact, I think the first thing of his that I read was actually a tweet.
“Whither the elevator-inspector-detective novel?” you ask, “or the satire or the thinly veiled memoir?” And unto you, I say “shut it.” Who cares what order you read the man in when you’re having so much fun doing it?
Like my first sexual experience, my time at the World Series of Poker didn’t last long… is how I would’ve started this section if I’d been eliminated the first day. But I wasn’t. Suck it, Entropy. We have an appointment, my old friend, but not today.
If you aren’t laughing, I’m not sure we can be friends. In fact, I cannot recall the last time I laughed so consistently at a book (outside of Discworld novels or my own tragic attempts at writing a novel, although I’m laughing for different reasons at that last one) – a fact all the more interesting (to me) because of Mr. Whitehead’s noted and cultivated demeanor as someone who might in fact be dead inside. In fact, his self-deprecation pretty much kicks off before the book even properly begins, with a dictionary definition of anhedonia – a word he appropriates for the name of his country-of-birth and the small, sad nation that he represents in the WSOP – and it doesn’t ever let up from there. The dryness of his wit, like a truly exceptional martini, might leave you gasping and choking but you know you’re going to come back for more because, damn, it felt good.
But seriously. I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud at something on easily 60% of the pages in this book. That’s a conservative estimate. And it’s not necessarily that things were funny, per se – for example, I do not find math to be terribly amusing, although I know plenty of people who do (…strange, strange people that you are) – but rather that they were told with a wry twist and a general sense of “holy shit, how on earth did I get here?” And that makes for delightful reading (especially, say, in the midst of an angry mob waiting for the opportune moment to sacrifice a child or tourist to the MTA gods to make the 6 train run more efficiently).
I’m also a poker guy, in the same vein as Colson – in fact, I would pretty much give up whatever advance I eventually get on whatever novel I manage to convince someone to buy from me in order to play in a poker game with him and Nathan Englander and whoever the hell else is in the game. (By the way, did you know that he went to college with Darren Aronofsky? Maybe the coolest reveal in the book, sorry if I spoiled it for you.) But that’s because the game is for fun. It is the sort of game I played in college and the sort of game that ordinary guys (and gals, despite the major gender gap in the poker world) continue to play and will continue to play forever. And so it was also quite exciting to watch a “normal guy” suddenly figure out how to swim with the sharks – but to also realize that there are plenty of other normal people who do it. There’s a college thesis waiting inside this book, for the right enterprising senior – and may the gods of Anhedonia give you grace, gentle student – about the perfect manifestation of the American Dream that is poker… but while Whitehead touches on the subject (including in a diversion towards the end that springs us a year forward into the future), he focuses much more on the game. On his preparations for the game. On being a stranger in a strange land and what that felt like – and the book becomes, in its own strange and unexpected way, one of the successors of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I’m not kidding. Gone are the old temples, replaced by gaudy monstrosities – but the town retains its strange alien existence, morphing into whatever it needs to in order to remain a place strictly outside the bounds of traditional society. And here’s Colson Whitehead in his red zip-up hoodie with his sunglasses and his fright mask (what he calls his face, several times), wandering through and playing games and talking to people – and all the while, recording it to bring back to the outside reader.
Who cares if the novelist in him gets in the way every once in a while, jacking up the tension by barreling off on this tangent or that – or jumping a year into the future? This isn’t a novel, it isn’t just about his game at the WSOP….. although I might’ve actually enjoyed the flash-forward more had it come chronologically, but that’s a quibble. It’s a quibble and who cares what I think – by the time you try to decide which way you might’ve liked better, you’ll end up laughing your ass off again about this or that or the other thing that he wrote. Because honestly? When a book is this much of a joy to read, what else matters?
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Plenty of people who never play poker will read this book – and plenty who would never have otherwise read Colson Whitehead will, in a vice-versa sort of thing – do the same. It’s a pleasure to know that they’re going to come away with a newfound understanding/respect/pleasure, regardless of how they came into it. I just hope that some of that entertainment gets back to Colson somehow, makes him (heavens no) feel good. May you always have a big M, sir – because as long as you’re at the table, we at least know we’re in for a damn good night.
(also, a big thanks to Joe Gallagher at Doubleday for #stalkermarketing and sending a copy my way)