The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death, by Colson Whitehead

The Noble HustleA couple years ago my book club read Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and I was one of the members who actually enjoyed it. So when I saw that he’d written a non-fiction book about playing in the World Series of Poker, I was like, yes, I will read that. There was a short time many years ago when I watched the heck out of TV poker, and although I am terrible at the game and unwilling to learn all the minute details that would make me better, I am fascinated by the people who do take the time to study probabilities and the proper way to bet and all that. (A similar process led me to read Word Freak, about professional Scrabble players.)

The one thing I forgot about Zone One, though, was that I had described its first chapter as a “Franzen-esque stream of big words that I had to look up and heady philosophical musings”. This book? No different. The first sentence is, “I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside,” and things only go downhill from there. A little bit of this book is about Whitehead going to the World Series of Poker; more of it is about Whitehead’s citizenship in a land called Anhedonia where everybody is dead inside and blah blah blah.

As you may guess, those latter parts are my least favorite. But the poker parts? Pretty dang good. Whitehead talks about playing his five-dollar buy-in “home game” and how it is vastly different from playing the $50 or $100 or $500 tables in Atlantic city and how that is vastly different from playing the $10,000 buy-in WSoP in freaking Vegas. The people are more serious as you get into the higher dollar values, of course, but the “rules” of the game turn out to be completely different when you’re playing with real competition. There are apparently all these tricks you learn about what hands to bet and when to fold and what it means when the dude across the table from you bets 1.5 times the whatever that I pretty clearly do not understand, and so I was greatly amused when Whitehead described trying to play poker with his friends using WSoP rules and losing lots of money to people who had no idea what they were doing.

Not that Whitehead has any idea what he’s doing; his crash-course in fancy poker is barely longer than the one he gives in writing this book. I am not really clear how he managed to convince Grantland to pay for his entry (this book is adapted from essays he wrote for Grantland) except that obviously he was going to write this insane account of it. He reads all the books and gets coaching from a woman who has actually played her way into the main tournament, but there’s no substitute for a) playing all the poker all the time and b) having some preternatural ability to know what everyone else is playing. So I feel less bad about not understanding half the poker stuff in here.

This is definitely not the book I thought I was going to be reading, but as with Zone One Whitehead’s dense prose grew on me over time and I was at least interested to see where this rambling sentence or that one was going to end up. And it made me pretty excited for my own upcoming trip to Las Vegas, where I will probably not be playing poker but now I will be looking around for the poker-playing types that Whitehead describes throughout this book, and also those misting stations because those sound like they’re going to be wonderful in the summer heat.

Recommendation: For those willing to read seventeen words where one would suffice and long rambles about not much at all. Not for people who just want to read about poker.

Rating: 6/10

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchI read Tartt’s The Secret History a few years back and said then that I liked it okay but would probably like it better with time. This was a very accurate statement, as I remember the book fondly enough to be kind of excited about reading an 800-page novel by the same author. Eight hundred pages. Criminy.

I actually had to take a break in the middle of reading this book to go read Their Eyes Were Watching God for my book club, this book was so long, and it was kind of weird, actually, because I found myself thinking that Hurston’s novel was kind of not really about anything and therefore kind of boring, while at the same time being really excited to get back to Tartt’s novel, which was kind of not really about anything but somehow quite gripping.

Probably this has to do with the fact that there is one overarching plotline through the whole book, which is that at the very beginning of the book our protagonist, Theo, survives a terrorist attack at a New York art museum and also kind of maybe steals a really famous painting on his way out, for reasons that make sense at the time. Theo’s mother does not survive the bombing, and so Theo and the painting get shuffled around the country as he goes to live with a friend’s family and then his own deadbeat father and then with a person he met via the terrorist attack. And of course the longer Theo has this painting the harder it is to a) give it up and b) give it up without getting in scads of trouble.

The rest of the story, during the first part of the book, is about Theo dealing with his mother’s death and the indifference of his father’s family and his missing father and then his suddenly fatherly father and how a kid can survive an event so catastrophic. There’s a lot about Theo going about his life in New York, and then creating a new life with his father in Las Vegas that involves doing pretty much every terrible thing a teenager can do, because why not, and then going back to New York and trying to figure out what kind of life to live there. It is not unlike reading about your own childhood, though yours probably had less drug-taking, but there’s also this painting and what the heck is going to happen with this painting??

Then in the second part everything changes — Theo, who I was totally rooting for even in Las Vegas, turns into an adult who makes incredibly poor life choices and I was like, fine, don’t be a decent human being, see if I care. And then his bad decisions start having consequences and people are threatening him and other people are showing up with some nasty surprises and then the whole thing goes to Amsterdam and nothing good can come of Amsterdam. (Actually, I adore Amsterdam and had a fine bad-decision-free time there, but you know what I mean.)

I like the first part of the book quite a lot, and I liked the second part quite a lot probably only because of the first part. The story goes a little off the rails with all the stuff that is happening to Theo all at once and with the forgeries and the thievery and the guns and violence… it’s obviously super exciting at this point, and I really kept reading hoping that Theo would make it out of all these situations relatively unharmed, but it is rather more bonkers than I was prepared for.

And then the ending… much as I did with The Martian, I am allowing most of the ending but pretending the last couple of pages were mysteriously missing from my copy of the book, because I hear that those last couple of pages tie things up just a little too neatly for certain people’s sensibilities and that it probably does a disservice to the rest of the story. I hear.

But as I said at the beginning, the plot of the story isn’t really the important part; the story is really about Theo as a character and his interactions with the other characters and Tartt, as always, brings it in that regard. I loved and hated Theo, and although I enjoyed discovering the personalities and secrets of the other characters along with him, I liked also that Tartt gave those characters enough personality that I could tell when Theo was being particularly obtuse about one friend or another. Or all of them, really. Possibly most impressively, Tartt gives the titular painting its own sort of enigmatic personality, enough that I totally want to go see this painting in person along with apparently every other person who read this book. This is clearly a good reason to go back to The Netherlands, yes?

Recommendation: For people with a lot of time to give to this novel, people who like to hate characters, and people who don’t mind some bonkers in their literary fiction.

Rating: 9/10