The Agony Column

Colson Whitehead and His Turn in the ‘World Series of Poker’

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By Rick Kleffel

Incandescent Memories of the Future

On the face of it, the world beats words, hands down, every time. Our lives are so immersive, so intense that it seems anything less, no matter how powerful the art, simply cannot conjure up reality. This would seem to be doubly true for Las Vegas and the world of high-stakes poker. Yet, one paragraph into Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Noble Hustle,’ you’re reminded of just how powerful — and fun! — language can be.

Fun is the key word here, it’s important, it matters, and not just because Whitehead keeps the reader entertained. It’s important because Colson Whitehead’s latest conjures up not just fun but serious fun. This is life and death stuff wrestled down the page with mere words. This is the triumph of the Lilliputians over Gulliver, this is hardcore wild-side writing. This is bright lights in black and white.

As the book begins, Whitehead is a reluctant participant in the process. His previous book was an apocalyptic zombie novel, ‘Zone One,’ and he’s suffering a hangover. Plus, he’s in the midst of a divorce when Grantland magazine proposes he write about sports. He doesn’t like sports, but eventually agrees to write about poker when they offer to stake him ten grand for the World Series of Poker.

What follows is a surreal trip through memory, history, humor and Whitehead’s attempt to make the most of his opportunity. He balances dropping off his daughter with gambling binges in Atlantic City. He takes on a mentor and a personal trainer. He makes himself the representative of the “Republic of Anhedonia.” Every fiery step of the way, he writes sentences to amaze you, tells jokes that you remember, effortlessly performs a verbal incantation that transforms your world into his.

Along way expect to learn enough about poker to keep your mind afloat in the sea of shimmering illusion that surrounds Whitehead. The book is entrancing enough that you could easily read it in the very locations it takes place and ignore the world around you. ‘The Noble Hustle’ captures much more than the World Series of Poker. It’s like a science fiction novel written in the 1970′s about a glittering future world, full of despair, hope and wonder. Our world — now.

Link to recent NPR ‘First Read’ story about The Noble Hustle.

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