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Home » Culture and Criticism

Positively 5th Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker

Submitted by on July 24, 2008 – 5:06 PM10 Comments

Vegas is one of those topics (others include sex and music reviews) that requires as even a writing tone as possible — the less tone of any kind, the better, in fact, because it's already such a showy subject in and of itself, just the reported facts of it, that any rhetorical conceits and extended metaphors applied to it inevitably tangle in on themselves, no matter how skilled the author.

The author here, James McManus, is comparatively adroit — probably.It's difficult to gauge the objective quality of his writing, because he's entirely too interested in proving said aptitude, not to mention in establishing his bona fides as both a faithful husband and father and a hell-raiser emeritus who's chafed by the middle-aged restraints of proper diet and exercise.McManus does avoid falling into the "Sin City: o ye glittering empty dreamscape" trap the city has successfully set for so many writers (and I do not exempt myself, although in my defense I was 22 years old, and the bulk of the "insights" I thought I had at that time in my life turned out to be "shit everybody already knew"), but when he's talking about subjects ancillary to Vegas — gambling addiction, peeler bars, the history of the Horseshoe — the jaws snap shut on his leg every time.

The book purports to cover the trial of Teddy Binion's murderers, as well as the World Series of Poker, but the subject matter is problematic too, because, for starters, the narrative is three parts poker to one part murder trial — which means that for every obnoxiously recounted "research trip" to the Spearmint Rhino, in which the "Good Jim vs. Bad Jim" device once again fails to do the "Good Jim + Bad Jim = Annoying Midlife Crisis Jim" arithmetic, we get three times as much tangential musing on the Russian authors, McManus's grandparents, and the semantic parallels between poker and Doing It.

It's a hazard with books of this type that, having done extensive research on various associated topics, the author is damned if he's not going to shoehorn every last jot of it into the story, regardless of whether it chops up the flow, as it often does here.

And it's a hazard with books of this sub-type that the author is going to shoot for a freewheeling Hunter S. Thompson sort of tone, and miss, because Thompson made it look a lot easier than it actually is.Thompson also specialized in that astral-projection New Journalism where he could take himself outside the plot while staying in it to get the facts, another skill that I suspect he doesn't get enough credit for because the more outré aspects of his personal conduct get in the way — and I don't even enjoy Thompson that much.His work makes me tense.The tension is worthwhile; I can't say I "like" Thompson's writing, but I can appreciate how technically challenging it is to execute, and Thompson does not stand back from it to point out the challenges.McManus's tendency is to make sure the reader knows he's just dropped a demanding reference, but unfortunately his self-awareness about his turns of phrase doesn't extend to the douchey vibe he often gives off when writing about, for one example, how his wife doesn't want him receiving lap dances.He's aware that that's a reasonable requirement; he's less aware that his phrasing of it puts Jennifer on a madonna/whore axis that's really more about him.

As I said, McManus isn't incapable, and when he's not taking a fanciful sidebar on Tolstoy, he paces things very well.I don't particularly care for Texas hold 'em as a game, and the self-satisfied Tuesday-night-bad-ass culture that's sprung up around it in the last ten years is annoying, but when he's taking us through his experience of the tournament (he finished sixth that year), the same style that feels overwrought elsewhere snaps right on track.He should have written that book, and only that book, instead of trying also to make it about Sandy Murphy and Teddy Binion…or "Bad" Jim McManus.

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10 Comments »

  • Jessica says:

    If you can find it, this book is pretty good. It was supposed to be Stu Ungar's memoir, but he died before it could be completed, so it's his own commentary interspersed with the third-person narrative. The caveat is that I find televised Texas hold 'em weirdly fascinating, so I had the extra interest in, say, Doyle Brunson trying to help Ungar dry out, since I'd already seen Brunson in various poker-promoting shows. But it's told relatively straight: the ghostwriter-turned-biographer isn't a really strong preference the way it sounds like McManus is.

  • Cameron says:

    Funny you should post this now, because I just finished reading this book a week or so ago. And I really, really disliked it (more than you did, I think), for all the reasons you pointed out. I did also have a problem with some of the style of the poker sections, in that McManus had what to me seemed like a really childish infatuation with the slang and lingo of poker – like it made him one of the cool kids to know all the terminology and use it. A lot. Too much. Unnecessarily. That is also reflected in his dorkish worship of the big-time poker stars. I felt like either the tone of the book was profoundly false (in that maybe McManus thought that view of him is what readers wanted), or that Jim McManus is a huge d-bag that I hope I never meet in real life. And the Good Jim/Bad Jim thing made me wanted to punch Any Jim in the nads.

    But what really got me was the sexism. The strippers, yes. And using this vehicle to try to show (unsuccessfully, in my opinion) what an effing awesome husband and father he is was tiresome and placed his wife in a weird light: sort of a patient, haloed Donna Reed waiting for her husband to come home. And getting a diamond as her reward. Ladies like diamonds.

    Equally as tiresome, though, were McManus's stereotyped musings on why men dominate professional poker. When I ready his "observations" that men have more testosterone and are thus more aggressive and that women are better able to "read people" because they're more empathetic, I wanted to hurl the fucking book out the window. No citations to anything for that, of course – he's apparently repeating conventional wisdom that he assumes no one would challenge. Except people playing poker exhibit learned behavior, a point he makes over and over throughout the entire book (with himself as the prime example, as his success at the World Series he credits to book-learnin'). Women don't have magical powers to read minds because of the presence of their vaginas, and men don't know when to go all-in because of the manly chemicals flowing through their veins.

    To be fair, it didn't reach my Ninth Circle of Hatred, since I actually finished it. But that's not saying much. I finish reading lots of crap I don't like. And I really wanted to like this book. I love Vegas, I love to gamble, and, although I'm not a true-crime expert, I do like reading it (not that there's much of it to be found here, given the focus on the poker side). But McManus' hackneyed observations about wealth and risk-taking and drug addiction and gambling and why rich men like pretty women and pretty women like rich men were so, so irksome and unnecessary. Ugh.

  • solaana says:

    Well, I'm not the biggest fan of books about Las Vegas anyway (I don't know – I'm not the biggest fan of wallowing in that sort of depravity), so here's another book I don't have to read. Yay!

    But what I want to know is, how did the spelling bee go?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    "McManus had what to me seemed like a really childish infatuation with the slang and lingo of poker" — yeah, I agree, viz. the title, which when you break it down makes no sense. "Positively 5th Street"? 5th Street is a card. What does that even mean.

    I also disliked the overexplaining of certain poker terms. I think we can figure out what "flop" means when it's used as a verb, given the context, Overwriter Jim.

    And if Skyrockets wrote about me that way — "she's a muse! she's an albatross! she's the only one I never cheated on, so I must really love her and she'd better appreciate it!" — I'd dump him prontito. It's not that he got the lap-dance or any of that; it's the "women: can't live with 'em, can't do my own laundry, haw haw, am I right guys?" tone that I found douchey, not to mention a little bit pathetic. Like, get with the now, dude.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    (won the spelling bee, BTW)

  • dan says:

    "yeah, I agree, viz. the title, which when you break it down makes no sense. "Positively 5th Street"? 5th Street is a card. What does that even mean."

    Not that it helps make the book title make any sense, but "Positively 4th Street" is a Bob Dylan song. So, I guess McManus was merely trying to be clever by combining poker slang with Dylan?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    That makes it more annoying, IMHO, but I have an allergy to cutesy Dylan references.

  • MCB says:

    Is it bad that I kinda want to read this book just so I can snark on its author now?

    Also, cutesy Bob Dylan references bug me too. Glad to know it's not just me.

  • Isabel says:

    At first glance at this post title, I thought this post was about, in fact, Positively 4th Street, which is both a Dylan song and a pretty awesome book about the 60s 4th Street culture, mostly Dylan & Joan Baez, and was sort of sad to find out it was in fact about a book that sounds way less awesome, and also has nothing to do with 4th street or the 60s.

    Seriously, I kinda wanna punch the dude in the face from the post & comments alone.

  • ScottyVegas says:

    This is always one of the books about poker and Vegas I put on my list to read every year and never do. Just finished Stu Ungar-One of A kind. Its a very good read if anyone is interested

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