Ted Heller’s poker “memoir” calls the literary world’s bluff
When you combine the worst traits of a novelist and a poker player, what you get is a deceitful, narcissistic asshole with an extremely skeptical outlook on the world and an all-consuming sense of self-entitlement.
Or at least that's what you get in Frank W. Dixon, the protagonist of Ted Heller's Pocket Kings. Written in the style of a memoir from Dixon's angsty point of view, Heller succeeds in creating one of the most wholly dislikable and irritating protagonists in recent fiction. Dixon is a middle-aged, gluttonous, has-been novelist still dreaming that he'll one day be a major literary figure.
Having lived his whole life as a competitive man, Dixon's strongest desire is to have his self-perceived genius acknowledged on a grand scale. As he unsuccessfully shops around his latest book to publishers, it becomes clear that he's washed up.
Then, for the first time, he finds something he’s great at: online poker. This finally gives him something to validate his sense of self-importance. "I had developed the first man-crush of my life that wasn't on an athlete," writes Dixon. "It was on me."
Diving headlong into the virtual world, he creates a network of poker buddies, all of whom exist as web-messaging cartoon players who siphon off each other's bank accounts. Dixon is transformed into his poker alter ego of Chip Zero, a tough, bleach-blond, sunglasses-wearing avatar.
The more ensconced Dixon becomes in a game that deals in deception, the more deception becomes a part of his daily existence. Without telling his wife, he quits his job in order to play poker full time. Then he becomes involved with a woman on his poker site. He explains himself with such sexist gems: "Whenever you hear a man complaining about how gullible, guileless, and oblivious his wife is, keep in mind that this man is secretly grateful."
But as a full-fledged scumbag, Dixon also provides a platform for some uproariously caustic wit. The humor is Anthony Bourdain-esque in that Dixon uses his personal distaste of everything he deems over-celebrated to project his own smug feelings of personal genius. Most of this comes in the form of name-dropping—and summarily dismissing—every major literary figure of the past several decades. Heller spends a good deal of the book's 355 pages railing against what he refers to in a multitude of nominal variations as the "Jonathan David Safroenzthem's [sic]" of the world. His idea that writers like Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer and Jonathan Franzen are all a uniform embodiment of tame, egocentric intelligentsia provides some of the book's best material. Referring to their works in iterations such as Everything Motherless is Infinitely Heartbreaking and Corrected and Incredibly Unbearable and Unbearably Unincredible, Dixon's rants provide great satire.
In one such instance, he browses through a bookstore, quipping on "All the clever, coy, convoluted, self-conscious, postmodern, post-post ironic books the Times finds fit to love, books not about human beings but about their own cleverness. ... The only thing more intolerable than reading books about writers is reading a book about itself." It’s vitriolic comedy at its best.
That said, one begins to wonder why this "memoirist" (who seems to embody and speak for Heller, the author, in more ways than one) thinks he's such a good writer. Dixon spends so much time writing about how people think he isn’t a good writer that the reader is left to wonder, Is this supposed to be good writing? This writing about not being seen as a good writer?
Plot-wise and conceptually, the book takes off when Dixon finally meets some of his poker buddies and embarks on a trip to Vegas. They realize that none of them are capable of actually betting with real people at a real poker table. During the trip, Dixon looks at a group of strangers playing cards and is disgusted by the lack of camaraderie in their game that he’s used to feeling online. "It was too transitory and was ultimately meaningless, the difference between an empty one-night stand and an actual relationship, and I didn't want any part of it."
But that main existential conceit—that virtual reality can be more real than reality—isn't terribly fresh. Heller is a smart writer, but despite all his intellect, Pocket Kings is not a book that often makes you think. What the author has going for him is a lacerating, unending wit and the ability to evoke gut-wrenching, visceral emotions.
A recurring theme is that editors and literary critics won't promote Dixon's work because it's overly morose. As Heller's book winds down, that feeling of sickness is increasingly palpable, and he certainly doesn't go for any audience-appeasing conventions. But Dixon's (i.e., Heller's) constant complaint on why his writing isn't truly appreciated is a see-through excuse. There really are better, more successful books out there than Pocket Kings that are also darker.
Still, Heller's sadistic foray into deception paints an unnerving and convincing portrait of addiction and despair. For that accomplishment and its black comedy, Pocket Kings is worth the gamble.