Colson Whitehead’s The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death (Doubleday, $24.95) is the latest big memoir about playing in the World Series of Poker. It’s not the best — that honor would go to either Al Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town or James McManus’ Positively Fifth Street. But to Whitehead’s credit, he isn’t trying to compete with those acclaimed titles.
In fact, it’s not entirely clear what Whitehead, a respected literary novelist, is doing, other than taking full advantage of his original assignment to write about playing in the tournament for the Grantland website. But that sounds like a knock, when it’s not necessarily the case. It’s true that The Noble Hustle is a rather slight piece of work, hardly up to the level of Whitehead’s finest fiction (John Henry Days, Sag Harbor), but it is dappled with apt and funny observations about life and gambling.
Whitehead, for example, expends considerable effort explaining what a wretched individual he is. Although it verges on annoying after a while, this tangent does yield some near-LOL one-liners, such as, “I’d long aspired to the laid-back lifestyle of exhibits at Madame Tussaud’s,” and “I was a skinny guy, but I was morbidly obese with doom.”
What gives the book ballast, however, are two smart observations about Las Vegas. Whitehead wisely resists the temptation to condescendingly critique, analyze and summarize the city. He recognizes that minefield and steers clear. But he does see Las Vegas in a wider social context — and nails it.
• “We go to casinos to tell the everyday world that we will not submit. There are rules and codes and institutions, yes, but for a few hours in this temple of pure chaos, of random cards and inscrutable dice, we are in control of our fates.”
• “The mere fact of Vegas, its necessity, was an indictment of our normal lives.”
Locals may recognize these sentiments — “What happens here, stays here” and all that — but it’s easy to underestimate the intoxicating power that Las Vegas projects beyond its borders. Because Las Vegas — at least the city of gambling tables, nightclubs and pool parties, of drinking, dancing and doing it — is very different from “back home.” Back home, “rules and codes and institutions” still reign. Places still lock the doors at 2 a.m., and people fret about what other people are going to think.
Whitehead doesn’t say whether he’d prefer “our normal lives” to be more like Las Vegas, but you get the distinct impression he’s not thrilled with much of his “everyday world.” “The world is a disease you shake off in the desert,” he writes, somewhat optimistically, upon arriving here. But he later takes it back: “Do not hope for change, or the possibility of transcending your everyday existence, because you will fail.”
Despite the occasional merry rhetorical flourish, The Noble Hustle is not exactly the feel-good hit of the summer.