Positively 5th Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker
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.
Tags: books Hunter S. Thompson Las Vegas poker Teddy Binion