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).