The Noble Hustle Hits Rock Bottom
Colson Whitehead's Poker Memoir Explores the High-Stakes World of Low-Grade Depression
Colson Whitehead's latest book, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death (Doubleday, $24.95), is really two stories in one. On the one hand, Whitehead documents the time that sports site Grantland hired him to compete in the World Series of Poker, even though he's never before played a professional game of poker. On the other hand, Whitehead uses poker and gambling as the framework on which to hang an informal memoir. One story is more successful than the other.
To be fair, maybe I'm not the right audience for a poker memoir. I can count the number of hands I've played in my life on, uh, one hand, and the prospect of watching poker on TV entices as much as a Fox News marathon. But it's the author's job to coax novices into aspirants, and Whitehead doesn't crack open the impenetrable jargon of poker to let the reader inside. Passages like this become more and more frequent as the book goes on:
I folded out of turn, tried to bet 2.5x the BB, per the table custom, but misidentified and put in less than 2x, which was a no-no... At Yellow 163, I got my nicest run of cards, QQ, JJ, flopped an Ace-high flush, but there wasn't a lot of action.
There's a pleasing, relentless rhythm there—nobody can say that Whitehead doesn't know how to write—but he's so determined to sound like he knows what he's doing that he leaves his readers to Google's tender mercies as they try to figure out what the fuck he's saying.
Which is a shame, because Hustle might be Whitehead's most personal book yet, and it conveys a compelling rawness you don't see in most memoirs. At the time of the poker tournament, Whitehead was coming off a divorce and trying to navigate the waters of part-time parenthood. He spends much of Hustle coming to terms with his innate cynicism using an extended metaphor in which Whitehead refers to himself as a citizen of the Republic of Anhedonia. "We Anhedonians have adapted to long periods between good news," he writes. "Our national animal is the hope camel. We have no national bird. All the birds are dead."
Though Whitehead, a lifelong New Yorker, has always hidden behind a shell of aloofness, he seems in Hustle to be hovering over a pit of depression, watching reality TV shows ("America's Got Schlubs, Keep Trying to Outwit Death You Stupid Monkeys") and accurately prophesying the end of the good times. "I can't help it if I understand that everything tends to ruin. Over our heads, Skylab is eternally falling down, I can see it all, the debris raining without cessation. I was a skinny guy, but I was morbidly obese with doom."
Don't expect the usual feint toward epiphany in Hustle that you find in your typical memoir. Whitehead always checks out right before the traditional satisfying climax—he skipped the postal rampage in John Henry Days and glossed past the nomenclature expert's final decision in Apex Hides the Hurt—but that's okay. Bookstore shelves are groaning with satisfying endings. Anyone who's been low knows that the bad feelings don't just disappear; you learn to live with them. The most important thing about Whitehead is that he never lies.