Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Pocket Kings by Ted Heller, reviewed

Wow. I just finished Ted Heller’s new novel, Pocket Kings, and I’m exhausted. What a ride he takes the reader on! I count Heller among my favorite authors, and it’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since the publication of his last novel, Funnymen. It was worth the wait. This time Heller takes on the world of online addiction (in this case poker), along with the current state of book publishing.

Pocket Kings, written in first-person, dumps you headfirst into the increasingly fucked-up life of narrator Frank W. Dixon, also known as his online poker persona, Chip Zero. Frank works at a boring, meaningless job after his first two novels didn’t sell well. He’s got another book completed, but his agent can’t sell it. Frank feels like a failure as an author, but soon discovers one thing that he is great at: online poker. Besides winning loads of money, he forges relationships with other online poker players. But are they real friends, or even real people? People can be whoever they want to be online. And is it ever a good idea to meet these people in real life? Probably not.

Heller never lets his lead character off easy. Which can be a hard trick to pull off when writing in first person (this novel is written as if it’s a memoir, which in itself is a spoof of all the embellished “memoirs” that have been published in the last decade). Here, we get to see Frank/Chip tell us firsthand what he’s thinking, his rationalizations, his insecurities, and yes, his hopes and dreams. We cheer for his successes as much as we cringe at some of his actions, especially the ones we know will hurt his loving and supportive wife, Cynthia.

As Frank/Chip’s success and winnings increase in poker, so do his frustrations as an author, of not getting published and becoming one of the darlings of the critics, the next Franzen, or Eggers, or Chabon (or as Frank refers to them, Jonathan David Safran Franzlethchabeggars). Frank often lapses into revenge fantasies against anyone who has rejected his writing, or who he sees as a roadblock to getting published again. Here he fantasizes about resurrecting his writing career by punching out a famous author and getting some free publicity:

“In lieu of the aforementioned Jonathans and Davids, I could punch out an old coot like Phillip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates and hopefully not kill them. Or I could take on a career-dead writer like Marty Amis or Sal Rushdie, both of whom could use the publicity, too.

But Joyce Carol Oates once wrote a book about boxing and could probably beat me up.”

Frank’s online life and his real life cannot be kept separate for long, and the results when the two meet are funny, sad, and disturbing, and have a lot to say about modern addiction and “quiet desperation,” or as Frank says about himself, “deafeningly not quiet.” Pocket Kings barrels along full steam right up to the end, which is unexpected, satisfying, and makes perfect sense. Frank/Chip is an honest, reliable narrator of this “memoir,” and his outlook on life and his brutally honest opinion of himself is hysterical. Ted Heller is one funny guy. I sincerely hope this novel is a hit, if for no other selfish reason than I won’t have to wait ten years for the next one.

Side note: I’m not a poker player, and don’t know much about it, but I didn’t need to. Heller’s descriptions made sense and I never found it boring or distracting (in fact, it made me want to play online poker).

5 Stars

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Chomp, reviewed

In Chomp, his latest YA novel, Hiaasen introduces us to teenage lead character Wahoo Cray, and his father Mickey, who is an animal wrangler—animals such as snakes, alligators, and monkeys. Wahoo’s family is struggling financially, and his mother takes a temp job in China to help pay the bills. When a well-paying TV job pops up, Mickey’s father reluctantly accepts. Reluctantly, because the job is working on the popular reality TV show Expedition Survival!, which includes not just handling animals, but also handling the show’s pompous star Derek Badger.

Hiassen’s wacky humor gets put to good use skewing both reality television and the pampered stars who begin to believe their own hype. Badger gets it in his head that he wants to shoot the next episode in the Florida Everglades, and use actual wild animals, not the tame ones owned and wrangled by Mickey Cray. Problem is, Badger only plays a survivalist on television—he can’t actually, you know, survive in the wild. And that’s the situation he finds himself in when a storm hits during filming, not to mention that the wild animals are actually acting wild and chomping on Badger seemingly at will. When Badger runs off in the middle of the night in a fevered delusion of turning into a vampire (Hiaasen gets to poke fun at the teen vampire craze here), it sets off a man hunt that eventually involves the local police.

There is a side plot that involves a female friend of Wahoo’s (named Tuna) who runs away to the Everglades with the Crays to get away from her drunk, abusive father. When her gun-toting father comes looking for her, it throws a monkey wrench into the search for the missing Badger.

Wahoo and his father are both very likable characters that the reader can root for. Frankly I’d like to see more of the father in future novels; along with Wahoo’s friend Tuna, it makes for the start of what can be a series, if Hiaasen choses to go that route. Wahoo’s mother is sort of missing in action here, however. We get a few phone calls from her, and we know she is close to and loves her son and husband, but she isn’t much of a factor. I wondered why she was in the novel, except to possibly set up the storyline for sequels. (It couldn’t have just been to make the point that American jobs are moving overseas, could it?)

All in all, Chomp is a fun, fast read that I enjoyed. I’ve had my eye on Hiaasen’s other YA books, but never got around to them. Now I will.

4 stars

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

nineleven, FREE for Kindle on 4/11/12

The Kindle version of my short story nineleven will be available for FREE on Wednesday, April 11th.

A man deals with the loss of his wife on 9/11.

The author writes with a creative and lively style. The gritty, raw voice of the character Chuck in the first story (nineleven) pulled me in right away, and I couldn't stop reading.
Writer's Digest Magazine contest judge