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Walter Mitty in Vegas

Gerald Nicosia is the author of "Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac" and, most recently, "Love, California Style: Selected Poems."

Beat writing is a lost art. For a long time after Jack Kerouac died, the closest thing to it that we saw came from Hunter S. Thompson. The way the Beats used their own voice and experience to immediately capture the reader’s attention spawned a whole new genre of nonfiction writing called New Journalism, which still has a plethora of practitioners, but what most of them missed was that the real heart of Beat writing was always a relentless assault on the American Dream. Thompson was one of the few who got it, and his “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” remains a classic because Thompson saw that the American Dream’s most vulnerable underbelly was Vegas itself, not only the capital of gambling and the ultimate adult playground, but the very acme of American concupiscence and greed.

If there was a flaw in “Fear and Loathing,” it was the self-styled “good Doctor Thompson” himself. Although Thompson skewered the sheer insanity of Vegas in a way it will probably never recover from, the man himself -- or at least the persona in the book, which by all accounts is not too far from the real thing -- is just too crazed, absolutely lawless and drug-and-booze-gluttonous for 99% of his readers to identify with. The final impression of the book is of a kind of contest between the author and the city as to which can bash its brains out first, and the outcome looks like a wash.

Now, at last, we have a book that does the same kind of number on Las Vegas by a writer who could not be more of an Everyman -- an intensely private and cerebral novelist and poet from Chicago, a plain-looking guy who’s worked for a living for the last quarter-century as a literature professor and an absolutely devoted family man, who can’t be away from his wife for more than 12 hours without picking up the phone and whose first thought when he travels is what gifts he will bring home to his two little girls. Yet James McManus’ “Positively Fifth Street” -- nonfiction though it is -- may be the closest thing to a true Beat novel we’ve seen since Kesey went back to dairy farming, Tom Robbins started going for too many easy laughs, and Thomas Pynchon fell silent again.

And, like all true Beat writing, “Positively Fifth Street” is a joy to read.

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The plot itself could hardly be more engaging. What happens to our intellectual schlump from Chicago when he gets an assignment from Harper’s to cover the annual World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, and, it turns out, said schlump also has a taste for gambling, for the weekly poker game with his cronies where he gets to cut loose from responsibility for a few hours in the backroom of a Greektown law office at the loss of $10 or $20 a game? Fine writer that he is, McManus could have done a creditable job of straight journalism, but he decided instead to take the biggest gamble of all and thrust himself right into the center of the story.

With an approach like that, if you don’t like the narrator, the book will die before it’s hardly begun. But it’s almost impossible not to love the character McManus creates to tell the story, a character he calls “Good Jim/Bad Jim” -- a kind of summation of all the conflicts in every one of us who bend our shoulders to the daily grind but who sometimes can’t help wishing we could for just one day step into one of those lust-and-danger-drenched Hollywood fantasies that serve as our weekend opium pipe.

McManus’ balding, bifocaled Walter Mitty gets more than one day; he gets a whole week away from home and family to go on the bender of a lifetime. Despite the opposition of his wife, Jennifer -- a significant character in the story though almost always offstage -- McManus uses his advance and travel allowance from Harper’s to enter the World Series himself. He is transfixed by the form of the game chosen by the series’ originator, Ted Binion, “no limit Texas hold ‘em,” which allows players to win enormous sums at the turn of a single card and also to go belly up just as instantaneously. Good Jim suffers endless pangs of conscience thinking of his children’s college fund, not to mention all the immediate family needs and house repairs he could pay for with that $4,000 he is almost sure to lose -- along with some 500 other fantasy-driven suckers from all over the world -- while Bad Jim can’t wait to put on his eyeshade, ante up and watch all those aces start flying in his direction.

But there is a moral waiting for Good Jim/Bad Jim even before he checks into his room at the historic Mint Hotel (now part of the Horseshoe Casino) -- once frequented by his esteemed predecessors Thompson and A. Alvarez, who wrote the other Las Vegas classic, “The Biggest Game in Town” -- and gets back to studying all those expensive manuals and computer programs intended to teach sure-fire poker strategy. The traditional host, Binion, will not appear this year. Binion, co-owner of the Horseshoe, one of the first casinos on the legendary downtown strip known as Glitter Gulch, a casino founded by his father, the even more legendary syndicate frontman and high-roller Benny Binion, recently ran into some insurmountable obstacles.

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Not only had he been blacklisted by the Nevada Gaming Commission for his excessive drug use and profligate lifestyle, but his stomach and arteries had been clogged by 107 capsules of Xanax and three balloons worth of black-tar heroin, even before his stripper girlfriend Sandy Murphy and her boyfriend, big-time hustler Rick Tabish, burked him -- which is a fancy strangling technique developed back in early-19th century England for providing mark-free corpses to medical colleges. In fact, the trial and conviction of Tabish and Murphy for Binion’s murder, happening concurrently with the World Series of Poker, is part of the story Harper’s wants McManus to cover.

McManus takes us back and forth between the building of the Binions’ vice-engendered and vice-ridden, multimillion-dollar empire, the murder trial and his own descent into poker addiction in what has to be one of the most idiosyncratic, sprawling epics of modern American literature. The book is fraught -- sometimes too heavily, to be sure -- with the history, lore and technical aspects of high-stakes poker, and it digresses a little too often into the personal history of the poor working-class Irish family McManus came out of, which taught him to value honesty and decency above the sheer mania for winning.

At times, in fact, McManus seems to throw everything into this book but his family’s kitchen sink -- and even that is never far out of the picture. And yet he amazingly makes it all work. Partly that is because there are long stretches of exceptionally fine sports writing, which catches you up as deeply in the moment-by-moment fortune shifts of poker as you would be watching the Super Bowl or World Series baseball, and other stretches where McManus dances poet-like amid stores of knowledge from every conceivable field and somehow ties them all together.

“Much like financial markets,” he writes, “the game [poker] is a scary arena in which money management, pluck, and intelligence combine to determine who will get hacked limb from limb. Wealth gets created, egos deflated, blood spilled. Not for nothing are poker tables shaped like the floor of the Colosseum -- the better to concentrate the butchery, the better to observe it up close. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the river [the turning over of the final community card].”

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Another part of the book’s irresistible fascination is watching luck -- without which all the poker skill in the world means nothing -- continue to shower this at times bumbling amateur until he finds himself sitting at the Final Table, where he faces five of the toughest, most seasoned poker players in the world for a possible million-dollar prize -- and eventually gets knocked out, but only after he’s secured a quarter-million-dollar runner-up prize for himself.

Most compellingly, though, we feel the gambling mania begin to grip and for a moment overpower McManus’ whole life. Such is the seduction of the money, status and fan and media attention that Bad Jim (who has come more and more to dominate the story) suddenly feels empty and lost even after winning a quarter million dollars, because his life on the edge is over, because he’ll never again feel the adrenaline rush of watching the flip of a facedown card that could make him a millionaire. Desperate to get back some of that adrenaline, he’s off and running with his quarter million to a high-end strip club, where he squanders several hundred bucks on a two-girl lap dance that could cost him his marriage.

Though “Positively Fifth Street” ends happily with family reunion and wifely forgiveness, it opens a window into the dark American soul that has been kept hidden and off-limits for too long in our current melioristic age.


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