I don’t know exactly what this says about me, but my view of the world has, at the very least, been refined by the nonfiction work of some of contemporary fiction’s best writers, maybe more than most newspaper reports or television shows I watch. The slow burn of a long-form piece or book written by someone with a novelist’s ear for prose is the shit that really gets to me. This is obviously a wide net I’m casting, putting Joan Didion in a category with David Foster Wallace (I much prefer their essays and reported pieces to their novels), or arguing that great works of reporting compare to my favorite novels, but they do. When a writer is good enough to blur the line between fiction and reality, that’s a trick I like to see over and over again.
Colson Whitehead is a novelist whose nonfiction has always compelled me to look at real-world things in a different way. I read The Colossus of New York not long after moving here, and said a silent thanks upon closing it, happy that I’d been fortunate to move to New York City with such a great book as my welcoming committee. So when I heard a few months back that his next book, following his literary zombie novel Zone One, would be a work of nonfiction based on Whitehead’s experience going to the World Series of Poker at the behest of Grantland (and for the promise of a $10,000 stake), I thought, “That’s wonderful. Colson Whitehead writing about poker. That’s delightful! I like that idea!” What I got was Colson Whitehead telling me a lot about Colson Whitehead, but also a book that confirms that, as much as we’d like to ignore it, a lot of people in this country consider Guy Fieri a fashion icon. The Noble Hustle is a book that says a lot about America without trying to make any grand sweeping statements; it works because Whitehead paid close attention to everything going on around him, and distilled it in his own unique way.
Throughout the book, Whitehead gives us the “Methy Mikes,” the “Hungry Hippos,” and the “Tentative Johnny” types. This catalog of grotesques sound almost like a Greyhound bus headed to parts unknown, but the descriptions Whitehead assigns to the random strangers who try to hit it big at poker tournament tables serve as decent nicknames for Americans from all walks of life. Whitehead shows himself to be an apt chronicler of the American lack-of-exceptionalism, going from the Atlantic City “antebellum home square” casino called “the Showboat,” “the ’50s-themed Johnny Rockets burger joint” that Whitehead says “reminded boomers of sock hops” and other bits of nostalgia from a bygone era, and the House of Blues that “served up rootsy sentimentalism.” It’s this sort of stuff that makes The Noble Hustle a book that’s about way more than poker, and what really makes it great.
But the card game is still at its heart. Whitehead’s perfect opening line, that he has a good poker face because he is dead inside, is matched only by the chapter’s last sentence, an admission that the writer always wanted an excuse to wear sunglasses inside. He’s clever, he’s funny, and his look at how the game has gone from college buddy pastime to the high-stakes, big-money world of tournament poker is fascinating and engaging. The Noble Hustle, though, is just as great of a look at a real America as it is a book about poker, all seen through the eyes of a writer we know best the very unreal world of fiction.