‘The Noble Hustle’: bets and bluffs in a high-stakes game
Colson Whitehead’s “The Noble Hustle” is a hilarious retelling of the author’s immersion in high-stakes poker, where he learned the necessity of hoping for the best. Whitehead appears Monday, May 12, at Seattle’s University Book Store.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “The Noble Hustle” will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, May 12, at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com).
Colson Whitehead is often told he has a good poker face, and having seen the New York-based novelist on a couple of his visits to Seattle for book events over the years, I have to agree.
His silky nonchalance is a little intimidating. But for a man whose intellect, imagination and wit run as deep as his dreadlocks are long, you just know there’s a lot going on behind that hepcat gaze.
So when Grantland magazine sent Whitehead to compete in and write about the seven-day World Series of Poker tournament in Las Vegas in 2011, even though he’s an amateur at the game, it was a weirdly brilliant choice.
His hilarious new memoir, “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death” (Doubleday, $24.95), recounts that experience in a story that is equal parts philosophical and farcical.
Despite all the gambling lingo and strategy-talk that Whitehead throws in for poker newbies, the card game isn’t really the star of this book. “The Noble Hustle” is really a social satire, one that uses gambling’s luck-based economy to explore ambition and folly, and the folly of ambition.
Whitehead couldn’t be better suited for the magazine assignment. He goes all-in. Like a boxer conditioning for a prize fight, he practices among the potbellied “Big Mitches” and hollowed-out “Methy Mikes” who populate the low-stakes “chump” tables of Atlantic City. He even hires a personal poker trainer to beef up his mind, if not his own unathletic body, for the main event in Vegas.
A divorcée with a kid, Whitehead comes off to readers as a stoic guy who wears his joylessness with honor, but contrary to the way he describes himself in the opening line of the book, he’s not half-dead inside.
Life hasn’t dealt Whitehead a totally bad hand. He just doesn’t see the need to turn cartwheels every time things go right.
Whitehead’s humor, like his general outlook, is dry as a bone, so when he writes that “luck is merely the temporary state of outrunning your impending disasters,” he does so with the pride of a true cynic rather than self-pity.
He even makes up a nation for people like himself, the Republic of Anhedonia, the borderless realm of “the shut-ins, the doom-struck, the morbid of temperament ... all those who walk through life with poker faces 24/7 because they never learned another way.”
Whitehead will represent his party-pooping countrymen in that absurd den of hedonism known as Sin City.
But if there’s one thing you need to be a good poker player, it’s optimism AND a faith in comebacks, not the inevitability of disaster.
And it is this need that forces Whitehead to reassess his Anhedonian way of looking at life as an endless series of good times gone bad, things falling apart.
“I was in tune with decay,” he writes. “What I needed to do was get in touch with decay’s opposite force, whatever that thing is that gets us out of bed each day and keeps us a few steps ahead of the wave: the hope of some good cards next hand.”
Does Whitehead win big or go home a blank-faced loser? It’s not that important to the story, which is more about the bets and bluffs we make to get through life than any wager we make at the poker table.
In the daylight-free bacchanal of the Rio Hotel casino in Vegas, Whitehead discovers that cards aren’t the only things laid bare; so is “your true self, with all its hungers and flaws and grubby aspirations.”
“We go to casinos,” he writes, “to tell the everyday world that we will not submit.”
Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.