Times are tough for novelist Colson Whitehead in The Noble Hustle, his memoir about playing in the 2011 World Series of Poker. Not only is he drained after finishing a book under a tight deadline, he's going through a divorce and figuring out how to be a good dad under the circumstances. But, as Whitehead describes himself, he's never been the cheeriest guy. He's a proud citizen of the Republic of Anhedonia (a country he invented) — a place where no one can feel pleasure, a place for the gloomy and doomy.
A committed amateur player, Whitehead has one gambling superpower: As he says in the opening line of the book, "I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside." Taking his poker skills as far as they can go — and then some — he trains for and plays in the World Series of Poker, backed by Grantland. And he eats a lot of jerky.
The Noble Hustle is a Paper Lion-esque sports story, complete with ESPN cameras, training sequences, and encounters with greats like Matt Matros, Whitehead's friend and advisor and now three-time winner of the World Series of Poker. It is a travel memoir, in which Whitehead recounts bus rides into Atlantic City and describes the buffets and circulated air of casino after casino, and takes us on a time-traveling detour to a post-college cross-country road trip to Vegas. It is a treatise on our constant need for distraction, and the ridiculous things we do in the name of that particular American god — what Whitehead refers to as the "Leisure-Industrial Complex" — as we have fun seemingly together while remaining completely alone.
Finally, like all stories about hustle, it's about having the guts to show up. The noble hustle of the title isn't just poker alone; it's the grind of the writer's life, or life itself. This is a book for everyone from amateurs to professionals, or even those who have never played a hand of cards at all. It's for anyone who has ever dreamed of succeeding when success was always out of the question.
Through it all, Whitehead is skeptical yet open-minded, gloriously melancholic and self-loathing yet — just a tiny bit, or are we imagining this? — hopeful. Not to mention hilariously deadpan. In other words, he's the perfect guide through the wild world of poker, and after reading The Noble Hustle, you'll wish you could to join him at the table for a game or two.
I met Whitehead, author of Zone One, Sag Harbor, and other novels, at No. 7 in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where we discussed road trips in your early twenties, the importance of Twitter friendships, and, of course, jerky. Delicious, delicious jerky. The man who sat in front of me was anything but half-dead. His eyes were bright as he spoke of his two children (one a newborn), the new novel he's already working on, and the trials, tribulations, and fleeting rewards of participating in America's largest gambling event. His wit, though, was still as dry as the meat on the table.