reviews

Bluff

There are apparently quite a few poker novels out there. As far as I can remember, I’d read none until this past month. Seemed like I should get started.

The issue for me (and for many others) was never really poker novels, per se. I’d always looked forward to reading a few. I’d tried to contact the author of The World According to Cinch, which sounded like it had to be the greatest poker fiction of all time, based on plot alone. (The book is not for sale any longer and the author didn’t respond to email.)

No, it was the genre novel itself that seemed dubious.  Usually the focus is a little funny in a genre set piece, providing a concave view of one thing through the convex of another. However, maybe I’ve been unfair. In fact, I remember being given collection of tennis fiction, which at first sounded too cute by half, but in fact ended up being very enjoyable and even pithy. Strange, it’s almost like you should not judge a book by its…

Anyway, enter Ms. Hitchcock and then Maud Warner, her protagonist and voice of the author of Bluff, Poison Pen Press, 2019. The plot detail of this novel is complex but the plot itself simple and inevitable: Warner and a few others in Manhattan wounded by the slippery financial scoundrel Burt Sklar make sure he gets his. In other words, it’s not a what plot, but a how plot. It’s only natural then, that the novel is slow to move at first, as it populates and explores, then gathers speed in a rolling ball of revelations and layers, ending with a flattened villain.

Talk and revelation compose most of the text of Bluff. In this way Hitchcock seems influenced by either the theater or its more contemporary equivalent, those top-notch PBS dramas which bring the upper classes to us when the snow outside and our success inside bury our better instincts. Since we seem to know what’s going to happen, this way forward has to be carried off with zest: a gamble for the author, conveniently, in a novel of gambling.

I was furious. “Where the hell did you get that thing?!” “I stole it,” he said sheepishly. “Jesus H. Christ, Alan! Are you nuts? Do you have a permit?” “No.” “You could go to jail if they catch you with this. Who the hell did you steal it from anyway?” “Burt,” he said with a sly smile. I was dumbfounded. “You stole this gun from Sklar? When?” “A couple of years after Mom died.” I crossed my arms. “Explain please.”

Breathless stuff. Hitchcock is not one for fading rivulets of compelling information, but instead is consumed by the polarities of sincerity and insincerity. Talk is genuine or it is not. ( And polarity is going to matter, as we shall see.)

Our interlocutor here, and taking on some of the personal life of the author herself, is Maud, who must accomplish quite a bit. Maud must not only commit a perhaps intentional revenge killing, but must escape from its consequences. However, the first task Hitchcock assigns herself is backdrop, the stage Maud and company fret and frolic upon: wealthy Manhattan.

It’s a convincing if entirely off-street one as a whole. The detail of this part of her world never lets up from front to back of this book.

As I climb the marble staircase, I hear the hum of conversation, which is the music of power in this power restaurant in this power city. I gird my loins, as the Bible says, and take the last few stairs up into the airy restaurant where the best tables are reserved for the best bank accounts.

Passages such as this exemplify, at one time, the best and most improvable aspects of Bluff. Throughout the book, Hitchcock comes up with a surprising number of piquancies that help sustain the narrative. Recognizing that conversation and the expressions of desire are the conduits to action, the author deftly names the tune of a talk heavy book. However, Maud “girding her loins” doesn’t quite work, nor her invocation to the Bible. After all, she ends up being quite above regret and reproach for her possible crime, and is a resolute and death-borne character: her loins or what is in them no longer matter. It’s not the future that belongs to Maud, but vengeance and peace or possibly death or incarceration. Defiance is her real theme.

Hitchcock is conversely very strong on differentiating characters and enlivening the cast. The reader rarely is confused by the plotline or the actors it contains. This alone is enough to carry many books.

The first time Magma bursts into tears the guests are moved by her dramatic ordeal. The second time she breaks down, during the entrée, they are less sympathetic. Her third outburst, during the salad course, is met with stony stares. By the time the Grand Marnier soufflé arrives, people wish to hell Magma had gone to some other fucking restaurant.

An extremely satisfactory and explanatory passage, one of many examples.

Further, the de rigeur place mat detail is crisp and good:

Greta is a famous hostess in New York, known as a grand acquisitor of paintings, porcelain, and people. She has an eye for quality, in life and in art. No “Paperless Post” for her. Invitations to her “small dinners,” as she calls them, are handwritten on ecru cards, and much sought-after because, along with the elegant apartment, gourmet food, vintage wines, and glittering table settings, there is always interesting company. Greta coined the phrase, “You are who you eat with.”

However, after Hitchcock knocks out what for her appears to be the easy stuff, she repeatedly reveals her real talent: the recognition of character and its detail:

Burt Sklar, by contrast, is gym-fit and spray-tanned. Strands of his black hair are carefully combed over a shiny pate. He’s dressed all in black—black suit, black shirt, black tie. Contrary to Sunderland’s rocklike presence, Sklar is all motion, using his hands to hammer in a verbal point. He reminds me of a bat. I overhear him repeating his mantra, the words he prefaces every sentence with in order to reassure people of his veracity: “Candidly…? Honestly…? Truthfully…?”

A primary way to understand people is to assume they mean the opposite of what they say, and Burt is characterized here nicely with his innocuously vicious overuse of adverbs. He is a liar, and lies are always ominous. Burt, for good or bad, is possibly the real star of the book.

That’s an important accomplishment for the writer, but also a potential challenge, because Maud is the formal protagonist and her voice guides us. In fact, the narrative attributes of the book revolve around two structures.

First, the format of a hold’em game is imposed on the book. Instead of three acts, the book is divided into Flop, Turn, and River. Why Bluff starts with the flop is open to interpretation, but perhaps a good one is that the history of Burt’s crimes against Maud and others are the preflop action. However, because all the action happens late in the game, so to speak, it feels like we’re starting on the turn, and that Maud is simply going to bluff out her opponent on the river, the equities against her. A come from behind story.

The second formal attribute is the switch of narrative voice from omniscient to Maud, a regular change of guide which occurs throughout the book.

“Pizza’s all gone. Sorry.” “It’s never all gone.” I dig out some half-eaten pizza crusts from the industrial-size garbage can, brimming with dirty paper plates, soda cans, and beer bottles. “Maudzilla dumpster diving!? Icicles are forming in hell,” Pratt laughs. I stretch out on the ripped, springless couch, scarfing down leftover pizza crusts. I think about my poker journey which began on the Internet, then went live at Billy’s Poker Palace, and pretty much ended here in this dismal loft. No Poker Palace amenities here. The poker table, under a single hanging lamp, is the only bright spot in a vast room reeking of Thai cuisine from the restaurant directly below. The wall-mounted TV has a lousy picture, much to the fury of players who bet on sports. Whereas my tablemates at Billy’s were a cross-section of Washington’s elite, here at the Gypsy’s, I played with a more colorful, diverse crowd, including felons and felons-in-waiting, guys I knew only by nicknames like Night Fox, Zombie, Joker, Cowboy, Big O, Professor, Beast, and The Great North American AJ, aka Sasquatch Man.

Here is an example of what our genre piece could work on. Why she is called Maudzilla is never really clear or earned, nor is why she is so quickly willing to have lost her standards and look through garbage, at least without comment, or if she was already huddling in alleys, why she hadn’t grabbed other undignified forms of nourishments; or why Pratt, man of a dingy poker club, is simultaneously so arch in his language or so easy going in the bizarre circumstances. Some suspicion and silence and unease would add a lot to these underground club scenes (in fact, to most scenes). Poker is, in fact, all too full of half-functional mental cases as much as the cheerful grifters with the erasable tramp stamp of their colorful appellation.  In any case, having committed a crime and now on the run, Maud is utterly blase about it: she’s one tough bird performing an instant rewiring to physical cunning and close living.

Is poker the province of such a soul? That might be an explanation, and it is one of the messages of the book, intended or not. The snappy nicknames mean little in a world where nothing particularly good or real exists. Part of the issue is that, despite being sold as such, Maud is not believably gifted at poker. Everything for Maud is polarities – they are bluffing or they aren’t, she either has it or she isn’t.

He studies my face, my body language, the pulse in my neck— all the little “tells” that poker players focus on to try and figure out if an opponent is lying, and if they should fold or call. “Okay. I believe you,” he says at last. He folded.

Poker is a game of wagers, and you will win and lose quite a bit in the parlay, both in theory and over time. The winning, in other words, is a long-term proposition, but for Maud everything is all or nothing, a somewhat facile view of the game that may be good for newspaper coverage but doesn’t match her difficult challenge and parallel success in outwitting Burt. There are hints Maud is a tournament player, and this sort of makes sense with her folksy philosophy. But it doesn’t mesh very well with her being a supposedly a tough reg in local games like Billy’s or The Gypsy. Instead, the significant detail and unwinding of the complex plot is not mirrored in the poker:

We were both “all in” before the flop. We both had fairly equal chip stacks so whoever won this hand was going to win the tournament.

Jane S. Hitchcock at the BWPO2019.

And that makes sense within the theme of Maud gambling everything on a big play, I suppose. We don’t spend much time in those places, nor on the characters mentioned – the Professor, the Beast, the Sasquatch – ever make more than cursory appearances.

In other words, in the end, Bluff is a pokerly novel but all the real poker is played outside the game, with Maud outwitting the viciously unscrupulous Sklar at the very end. The best, most heated moments of the novel are all the discoveries of Sklar’s slickness, Sunderland’s dangerous buffoonery, the comic suffering of the stripper bigamist, and the worlds of the upper crusters, many only a generation removed from a more Sklar-like status, being upended.

I’d like to see Maud in more stories, or if that character is closed off by the novel’s outcome, this poker world of Maud’s explored further by the writer. Hitchcock’s ability to nail her supporting cast and provide a believable world for them is something poker could use more of, and the author has just the vantage point to do it. Just as Maud ends her days beyond reach of both Sklar and the law, Hitchcock is one of the few who have the chops, standing, and access do more with our little world, a world of its own little high society, its own ridiculous hypocrisies, miserable criminals, and all too smooth liars and hidden heroes and heroines. Poker is a genre world, yes, but one still as rich as the upper west in possibilities.

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