Colson Whitehead explores poker,beef jerky and death in ‘The Noble Hustle’

Have you ever been to the Republic of Anhedonia? Actually, no one has. That’s because it’s a fictional country that award-winning novelist Colson Whitehead made up for his new nonfiction book, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death. If you’re familiar with Whitehead, you may know him best for his earlier fiction works like the critically acclaimed The Intuitionist or the Pulitzer Prize-finalist John Henry Days.

I familiarized myself with Whitehead from reading the few essays and columns he penned in magazines such as Harper’s and The New Yorker. More than anything, his February 2009 “Wow, Fiction Works!” won me over with his funny take-downs of otherwise-celebrated pieces of work and their authors. “This is the sterile language of the navel-gazer, the lotus-eater, the hermetic fiction of he who does not mix with the world,” said Whitehead about a young writer named Nelson Todd-Nelson. Before he propelled into a life of jabbing other authors to death, he worked as a music critic for the popular New York alternative weekly newspaper The Village Voice. However, I didn’t even know about those pieces until later on, when my interest in all kinds of music piqued from hobbyist to hoarder.

In a 2012 essay in the The New Yorker entitled “A Psychotronic Childhood,” Whitehead talks about his relationship with horror movies and science fiction. One sentence of that essay always stuck with me, which was: “A monster is a person who has stopped pretending.” From that essay, I also learned that Whitehead had written a horror novel Zone One. I then decided that I had to read one of his works of fiction. But rather than start with the horror novel, I decided to go somewhere lighter—the beach.

Colson’s fourth novel Sag Harbor takes place in the upper-class community of Hampton Beach, Long Island. The story follows the summertime adventures of two African-American teenaged-brothers who are from a well-to-do family. Unfortunately, the only interesting ingredient of the story is a fun description of the wafer-cone shop where the boys work. Everything else is boring. Or maybe it’s just that rich kids are boring. Anyhow, Whitehead is a much better cultural observer than he is a novelist, which is why I got excited to hear about his new non-fiction poker book.

Before you get the wrong idea, The Noble Hustle is far from a book like, say, poker guru Michael Sexton’s strategy guide 9 Secrets to Winning Poker. Instead, it’s Whitehead’s autobiographical meditation on his 20-plus year relationship with the game of poker. But even between all the book’s interesting personalities and travel stories, he still explains the rules of the game to the “lay reader.” His playful grasp of the written word makes these instructions so much more delicious to read.

On the Small Blind and the Big Blind, he writes, “They’re in, and maybe they’re protective of their opening contribution, will feel moved to defend their one dollar or two dollars, the way a parent on a playground might steer their progeny away from that weird kid who’s been eating nuggets from the sandbox (feral cats use this place as their bathroom at night, according to a parenting blog).” Mmmm, tasty—the words, not the nuggets.

The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death will be released on May 6.

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