THE ROGUES' GAME
By Milton T. Burton
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's, 296 pp. $23.95
For me, one of the virtues of Milton T. Burton's "The Rogues' Game," which looks closely at gambling and related vices in Texas in 1947, is that it brought back my own memories of gambling and related vices in Texas at about the same time. When I was growing up in Fort Worth in the postwar years, our little town had many points of civic pride -- country clubs, debutante balls, the annual fat stock show and rodeo -- but what really captured my youthful imagination were the gamblers, whose sinful ways were chronicled in the local papers. These gentlemen pursued their calling on the Jacksboro Highway, as sordid and dangerous a strip of bars, gambling dens and motels of ill repute as could be found in all of Texas. These fellows tried to live quiet lives by paying off the police, but on Nov. 22, 1950, they burst memorably into view when a gambler and ex-convict named Nelson Harris eased into his car, turned the ignition key and was blown to smithereens. His murder might have been a one-day story except that Harris's pregnant wife was blown up with him and, chivalry being far from dead in Texas, the attack was viewed as a blot on our city's good name. A long grand jury investigation followed, but the killer was never found. There was, however, much brave talk of cleaning up the Jacksboro Highway, although as an underage college student a few years later, I never had any trouble buying a beer or anything else out that way.
First-time novelist Burton, a Texan, writes about gamblers who are more elegant but no less lethal than those we had in Fort Worth. He has set his highly readable novel in an unnamed West Texas town where a high-stakes weekend poker game has been in progress at the Weilbach Hotel for some 50 years. The hero and narrator of the novel, who is never named, arrives in town in the spring of 1947 driving a new Lincoln Continental convertible and accompanied by a glamorous young woman named Della. He is a big man, 42 years old, who admits to having worked with "Wild Bill" Donovan in the OSS during the war. When asked, he admits to being a Harvard graduate, but the locals take that for a joke and laugh their heads off every time he says it. He has an unlimited supply of money, and it becomes clear that he has come to town not simply for poker but for revenge.
His nemesis is a banker named Clifton Robillard, who also frequents the weekend poker games. It will take several months for our hero to put his elaborate revenge plan in place, and in the meantime Burton entertains us with accounts of several favorite Texas pastimes: poker, the pursuit of oil, cockfighting and the production of moonshine. Our hero is a world-class poker player and a purist. He informs us, "I have one fixed policy. I never look twice at a hole card no matter what." He adds, "The basic mechanics and rules can be learned by an intelligent child in an afternoon or less, but a lifetime is not enough to master it in the heart where it's really played."
Oil is discovered outside town soon after he arrives, and we learn that his traveling companion, the "fine-bodied blonde" Della, knows all about the oil business. They proceed to buy up leases and become rich. In the process, Burton shows the skullduggery, swindling and violence that enlivened boom towns in the early days of oil exploration. He also introduces a character who breeds fighting cocks and manufactures moonshine. We thus are treated to an all-too-graphic cockfight scene ("After a few quivering death throes, it was all over, and Little's bird even managed to get to its feet") as well as to an explanation of how pure corn whiskey can be doctored and sold in fancy bars as eight-year-old bourbon.
In time the nameless hero's plan for revenge is carried out, and the reason for it is made clear, but for me that's not what the novel is about. It is, rather, an affectionate and accurate portrait of Texas as it began the painful transition from its Wild West past to the rather bland sophistication of today. Burton gets many things right. He has Harry James's band playing at one of the Dallas hotels and Bob Wills's band playing at a club in Tulsa, both of which would have happened in those days. He recalls how drinkers had to "brown bag it," which meant that because mixed drinks were illegal, you carried your own bottle in a brown bag into a bar and ordered a "setup" to mix it with, almost certainly getting drunker that way, which presumably wasn't what the legislature intended. He also tosses in an abusive husband who came home unexpectedly, found his wife in bed with her lover and "shot and killed both of them with a twelve-gauge shotgun." The husband would, of course, be spared punishment because of what in those days was called the Unwritten Law, which said that no man was ever convicted in Texas for killing his wife or her lover under such dire provocation. Say what you will of Texas, it was an interesting place to grow up.