THE NOBLE HUSTLE Poker, Beef Jerky and Death By Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead showed up in 1999 with his brilliant first novel, “The Intuitionist,” and since then has published six more books and won distinguished awards, including Guggenheim, Whiting and MacArthur grants. “The Noble Hustle” is his second book of nonfiction, the first being a collection of essays about his native city called “The Colossus of New York.”

“The Noble Hustle” is, as its subtitle “Poker, Beef Jerky and Death” suggests, a witty, wandering book about poker and anything else that floated through Whitehead’s consciousness during its composition, some of which is funny or interesting. The book expands articles commissioned for the ESPN-associated sports blog Grantland, which in 2011 supplied him a $10,000 buy-in for the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas in exchange for a report on his experience. He could keep any winnings but beyond that was not to be paid. There weren’t any winnings; hence, this book. Even if he had won millions, he says, he “would’ve written this book, artistic imperative and all that.”

Acknowledging that he’s a desultory poker player, Whitehead describes at length his “training,” which included taking a bus to Atlantic City casinos to play in low-stakes tournaments; instruction from a savvy poker coach who had played in the WSOP herself; sessions with a physical trainer (“I have to become a Living Poker Weapon in six weeks”) who taught him to sit up straight; and lengthy examinations of his personality and his home country, what he enjoys calling the Republic of Anhedonia, defined early for those too neurasthenic to Google it as “the inability to experience pleasure.” So, yeah. It’s sort of Tom Wolfe crossed with Tom Pynchon, with poker as the nominal subject. Much of this account of training is charming, with the notable exception of a labored, four-page metaphorical explanation of poker hands that is a trifle clumsy and not really all that clever.

The front cover to "The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death" By Colson Whitehead. (Doubleday) (Doubleday/Doubleday)

Around Page 100, he writes, “I hopped a plane to Vegas,” but we’re still 70 pages from playing in the WSOP. For gamblers that’s a bad thing, but for everyone else (who might also need an explanation of poker hands), it’s probably happy.

Gambling, truth be told, is one of the dullest pastimes there is to read about. This is not true of playing. Playing has a dependable little electric shock built in. Every few minutes the slot machine gives you a little jolt, throwing up matching bars, cherries, sevens or, in modern versions, pictures of Yoda or Frodo — you win! Ten dollars, yes, but that’s not the point. You win! Zzzzzap! Blackjack does the same thing, with cards, and after a while an odd thing happens — it hardly matters whether you’re drawing a five on a 16 . . . or the dealer is.

That’s playing. Reading about it is something else, which is probably why Jack Richardson, who wrote “Memoir of a Gambler,” one of the most famous books about gambling, was quick to toss into an otherwise wearying account of his travels and tables such things as Macao and a luxury hotel room with not one but two (underage, if I recall aright) Chinese prostitutes.

Whitehead, no fool, speaks to this problem with charm aplenty, an incessant self-deprecation with a touch too much “self” and an astonishing, unending miscellany that might make Woolworth’s blush, if there were still Woolworth’s.

There’s interesting poker lore: “You’re gonna be targeted no matter what, ’cause you’re very pretty,” his Coach tells him. There’s history of Las Vegas and the rise of megacasinos, what Whitehead calls “the Leisure Industrial Complex.” We hear about the miniature buffalo, Elvis magnets, chunks of turquoise and replicas of the Sears Tower that years earlier he and his college buddies epoxied to the hood of the Toyota they took on a road trip, tokens of their travels, including toy slots from Las Vegas. Friends wander through the narrative, usually writers or artists, with random details attached — of the other two guys in the Toyota: “Dan got into computers and founded a visual-effects company, rendering CGI for movies such as ‘Requiem for a Dream’ and ‘Black Swan,’ which Darren directed.” Artists here suffer and starve for at least 20 minutes before they hit it big.

Sometimes the book seems like a “range of reference” contest entry, sometimes wonderfully so: “I wanted to exist one single day on this miserable planet without having the thought, ‘I should really have the Caesar Salad.’ ” Or: “We go solo, my kinfolk and I, taking each day as an IKEA bookcase we build alone, sans instructions. The leftover pieces? We gobble them down, and sometimes it’s the only thing we eat all day.” There are allusions to beef jerky, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” Hal Holbrook, Palenque, “Eat, Pray, Love,” the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Samuel Beckett, “A Clockwork Orange,” a jeweler’s loupe, Phoenicians, Ratso Rizzo, the Pixies, Dora the Explorer. And so on. The talk is slangy (from miscellaneous decades and lexicons, from “smackers” for dollars to “spank bank” for . . . oh, Google it). Whitehead, an updated Jack Richardson, seems to toss in everything he can dream up to keep his readers amused.

So “The Noble Hustle” is a valiant, often successful effort to overcome the dullness of vicarious gambling (and maybe suspicions about a bloated magazine piece). A shell game. By the end, the lightness or lack of overall substance, as if we’re walking away with nothing, makes the book a little disappointing. But it’s a charming jumble, finally, a not unpleasant read, and a book about gambling, after all. Walking away with nothing’s what’s supposed to happen.

Steven Barthelme ’s most recent book is “Hush Hush.” He teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi.


Poker, Beef Jerky and Death

By Colson Whitehead

Doubleday. 234 pp. 24.95