The Noble Hustle is Pulitzer finalist Colson Whitehead's hilarious memoir of his search for meaning at high stakes poker tables, which the author describes as " Eat, Pray, Love for depressed shut-ins."
The Noble Hustle is Pulitzer finalist Colson Whitehead's hilarious memoir of his search for meaning at high stakes poker tables, which the author describes as "Eat, Pray, Love for depressed shut-ins."
After weeks of preparation that included repeated bus trips to glamorous Atlantic City, and hiring a personal trainer to toughen him up for sitting at twelve hours a stretch, the author journeyed to the gaudy wonderland that is Las Vegas - the world's greatest "Leisure Industrial Complex" -- to try his luck in the multi-million dollar tournament. Hobbled by his mediocre playing skills and a lifelong condition known as "anhedonia" (the inability to experience pleasure) Whitehead did not - spoiler alert - win tens of millions of dollars. But he did chronicle his progress, both literal and existential, in this unbelievably funny, uncannily accurate social satire whose main target is the author himself. Whether you've been playing cards your whole life, or have never picked up a hand, you're sure to agree that this book contains some of the best writing about beef jerky ever put to paper.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-02-10
- Reviewer: Staff
The eternal tension between good luck and remorseless odds animates this loose-limbed jaunt through the world of high-stakes poker. Novelist Whitehead (Zone One) was staked to a berth in the World Series of Poker by Grantland magazine, a mission for which he frankly declares himself unqualified, owing to his rather desultory pick-up games, haphazard training regimen featuring yoga lessons, deep and semi-baffled immersion in the arcana of poker-playing manuals, and bus trips to Atlantic City for seedy practice tournaments. His journey unfolds in a series of jazzy, jokey riffs on the cultural detritus of poker: the take-over of the game by young “Robotrons” honed by online gaming; Vegas’s “Leisure-Industrial Complex,” a terrain of soulful soullessness where “your true self is laid bare with all its hungers and flaws and grubby aspirations.” Along the way, poker emerges as the national sport of “the Republic of Anhedonia,” his habitually depressive, fatalistic State of mind that recognizes that “eventually, you will lose it all”—and that playing it safe is therefore the ultimate sucker’s strategy. Whitehead serves up an engrossing mix of casual yet astute reportage and hang-dog philosophizing, showing us that, for all of poker’s intricate calculations and shrewd stratagems, everything still hangs on the turn of a card. (May 6)
Whitehead's poker face
Could there be a less propitious setting than the Tropicana Poker Room in Atlantic City on a Saturday morning? As Colson Whitehead reveals in The Noble Hustle, a darkly humorous work of participatory reportage that finds him (a decided amateur) attempting to play poker with the pros, the answer is a resounding no. On a typical Saturday morning, folks trickle into the Trop for the weekend tournament—regular types the author sorts into three different but equally undesirable categories: the Methy Mikes, the Robotrons and the Big Mitches.
Whitehead’s previous book was the acclaimed zombie novel Zone One, an emotionally scouring horror story with a post-apocalyptic setting and all-too-plausible plot, the writing of which seems to have taken a toll on him. The Noble Hustle opens right after he has wrapped Zone One. Grantland magazine has offered him the assignment of reporting on the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas, but he’s reluctant to take on the project.
“Now that I was done with the book, I was starting to feel human again,” Whitehead says. “I wanted to rejoin society, do whatever it is that normal people do when they get together. Drink hormone-free, humanely slaughtered beer. Eat micro-chickens. Compare sadnesses. . . .” Yes, that’s sadnesses, plural, and the usage is all too apt, as Whitehead, we learn, is four days into a divorce. And living in a crappy apartment. And struggling with the “rules of solo parenthood.”
Despite—or maybe because of—Whitehead’s blue mood, Hustle is a hoot. Casting himself as hapless protagonist and letting his comedic sensibilities—however cynical—steer the narrative, Whitehead proves an ideal observer of poker culture. Once he agrees to cover the tournament, which will be broadcast on ESPN, he has six weeks to prepare, and so he begins practicing at the Trop, working with a poker coach and playing against writer buddies in games that are casual rather than cutthroat—all pretty much to no avail. “By disposition,” Whitehead writes, “I was keyed into the entropic part of gambling, which says that eventually you will lose it all.”
At the WSOP, he holds his own for a while, but by the end of the first day, he’s “a lump of quivering human meat.”
Whitehead writes with authority about poker and provides plenty of play-by-play action, but the tale he tells is much more than that of an odds-against-him novice. It’s also the story of a writer befuddled by fatherhood and middle age. Whitehead may not triumph at the tables, but his new book is a winner.