In 2000, writer and professor James McManus traveled to Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker, which was occurring during the trial of two people accused of murdering Ted Binion, whose father had started the aforementioned tournament in the 1970s. (Pause here to let that sink in.) It was a dream scenario for any writer, but instead of producing straightforward journalism about the ironic confluence of these events, McManus went a step further: he entered himself into the tournament. This resulted in Positively Fifth Street, the best work of narrative nonfiction I’ve ever read about poker. It’s a bizarre, expansive book that includes the history of Las Vegas; true-crime reportage from a sensational murder trial; and literary allusions to García Márquez, Lorca, and Plath. It works because the central narratives are so strong: not only the story of the Binion trial, but also McManus’s own experience at the poker table, struggling to balance his nebbish, academic side with his hedonistic, Vegas-influenced one (as he puts it, “Good Jim and Bad Jim”).
Positively Fifth Street proves an apt—though intimidating—interlocutor for Brooks Haxton’s Fading Hearts on the River, another ambitious work of nonfiction that seeks to use poker as a window into matters of history and philosophy. A poet and professor, Haxton tells the story of his son, Isaac, a professional poker player who emerged from the so-called “Moneymaker Effect” (i.e., the online poker boom of the mid 2000s). Fading Hearts is part memoir, part family history, part poker narrative, and part philosophical treatise on luck and art; its reluctance to declare a specific purpose—or to forge a narrative arc—makes the book consistently engaging but, ultimately, unfinished-feeling.
This doesn’t mean that Fading Hearts shirks coherence altogether. It attempts to make sense of itself through a handful of governing similes, the meatiest of which finds Haxton weaving together poker and art—literature, specifically. Although the gulf between these two things might seem massive, the pursuits are philosophically aligned—or so Haxton suggests on his first page, watching Isaac play in a tournament and telling the reader, “I too took a chance. I spent hours every day writing poetry.” Like writing, poker is something that takes long periods of intense, anti-social concentration to improve at, with no guarantee that one will ever become a professional. In other words, one can understand all the mathematical complexities of the game but still fall short of greatness.
For instance, imagine a hand of Texas Hold’em in which Isaac Haxton holds 2-3 and you hold 7-5 (here, suits don’t matter). Neither of you has anything—not even a pair—which means you’ll win with your high card (7—not very high at all). But considering the five community cards (i.e., the flop, the turn, the river), there’s the possibility that a player has a straight. If you’re not acting like you have a straight, it allows Isaac the opportunity to become a storyteller—in other words, to bluff. And if Isaac’s story makes sense given his previous betting patterns, then you’ll believe him, and you’ll fold. This is the instinct—the genius—of a great poker player: to identify the times when such a story will work, and to tell it convincingly. In poker, as in writing (where one can study great literature and write every day but never be as good as, say, Flannery O’Connor), there’s only so far an understanding of craft alone can get you.
Maybe some of this sounds far-fetched, but Haxton attempts to make these connections—to use his own life in writing to understand poker. The closest Haxton comes to a thesis statement is this: “For me, the world of high-stakes poker will always be a foreign realm. I hope, by writing my way into it here, to understand my son.” Yet this sentence misleads, suggesting great emotional distance between him and Isaac. The father/son relationship in Fading Hearts is one in which the father seems to understand the son just fine, encouraging him in childhood games and, later, in poker. Despite the occasional crisis, the family life on display in Haxton’s book is calm and loving, and while this makes for great reality, it doesn’t always make for the best literature. Haxton’s attempts to inject tension into this book (e.g., his own possible brain injury, or Isaac’s meningitis) are undercut by his foregrounding of a literary present tense in which the family is fine and happy. Haxton is a terrific stylist who specializes in “poetic disposition” (in particular, his description of his own non-debilitating sadness touched a personal chord in me: “in the sea of sadness, I live, like the American flounder, near the beach”), but his best work here comes not from his lovely (though temporally disjointed) descriptions of Isaac’s personal life. It comes from Haxton’s precise narration of individual poker hands, especially the ones that put his son in danger: “If this was not yet the excruciating part, it looked bad enough. Isaac’s body language at this moment changed. His head, with his long hair blowing, drooped. He worked the muscles of his face, as if to find an expression which did not reveal vulnerability. He failed.” When Haxton focuses like this, nothing else I’ve ever read—not even in James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street—comes close.
But the disappointment of Fading Hearts is somewhat beyond Haxton’s control: he simply doesn’t have the material that McManus did. Like McManus, Haxton anchors his book with a criminal case—namely, the FBI’s attempt to shut down online poker (which involves the confiscation of nearly one million dollars from Isaac)—but the particulars never come across as clearly as McManus’s account of the Binion trial. This lack of focus allows Haxton too much time to wander through his memory. The book feels like a stroll down a portrait-lined hallway, the reader listening as the author reflects upon each framed memory. Ultimately, Haxton’s story of his son’s success feels romantic—especially the ending, which, despite the book’s occasional attempts to undercut the allure of Vegas, seems to ultimately reinforce all the traditional, lustrous notions of the “high life.”
For this reason, Fading Hearts—despite its obvious merits (and yes, this is certainly a book worth reading, my reservations notwithstanding)—feels like it doesn’t go far enough into the mythos of the Las Vegas gambler. I turn to Steve Erickson, who writes in his great book American Nomad, “Vegas isn’t just postnuclear, it is post-postnuclear: it has circled the clock of the nuclear heart so far as to come up on the dark side of whatever looking-glass the atomic blasts of fifty years ago froze into the Nevada sands.” In other words, the dark side of Vegas—and, possibly, the dark side of anyone who attempts to earn a livelihood there—is something that Haxton doesn’t seem interested in looking into. Fading Hearts on the River is a very good book that could’ve been great if the lights—not only the glitz of the strip, but also the amber hues of Haxton’s own memories—didn’t leave the author occasionally blind.