Pocket Kings: A Novel

  • Ted Heller
  • Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • 368 pp.

This smart satire centers on the world of online poker and a climactic Big Game that happens in the flesh.

To screw up his courage to face Bjorn 2 Win, the Swedish horse butcher, in a climactic poker game, Frank W. Dixon stands in front of a mirror in Purgatory, to which he has fled from New York. B2W is headed to New York, if he’s not already there. Dixon’s not welcome there, there being his cozy New York apartment. His wife, Cynthia (Wifey), has kicked him out for cheating on her online with Artsy Painter Gal, and Cynthia doesn’t even know about his two failed attempts to cheat with APG in the flesh.

Any minute now, Wolverine Mommy, a woman Dixon’s never met except online, will join him in his motel room in Purgatory, Mich.

Wolve loves her husband ― she really does ― and her kids are the most precious thing in the world to her, but now here she is knocking on the door to rendezvous with this man she knows as Chip Zero: online poker stud, author of two books he will autograph and give to her. Her husband thinks she’s at Kohl’s.

Thus, Heller starts Pocket Kings near the climax ― a poker game between Dixon aka Chip Zero and Bjorn 2 Win, a player from whom Chip has won a whole lot of money on Pokergalaxy.com.

Dixon’s year of fortune, fame and burgeoning self-confidence built in the cyberworld of online poker begins innocently enough. He is with Cynthia in Las Vegas to take a break in his writer’s lull, recharge his batteries and begin a major revision offensive on his magnum opus. This manuscript, first volume ― 300-plus pages ― gathers dust in a storage lockup under the working title “Trilogy” and with the promising first line: Things were very bad then but still we carried on. Two men at the 10-buck-minimum craps table in Vegas tell Dixon that Cynthia reminds them of The Dragon Lady on Pokergalaxy.com.

After a few tentative steps, Chip Zero thrusts himself full time into Pokergalaxy.com. He enjoys a year of steamy cyber romances, great financial success and bravado, even as he suffers a year of mental self-flagellation mixed with his daydreams of vendettas against his literary enemies, including, but not limited to several overrated dead literary giants; his agent and the twin brother his agent created to avoid having to talk to Dixon; a snarky critic or two; and, lately, his suddenly successful peers.

Starting with $1,000, Chip Zero uses his penetrating writer’s insight to pick up the occasional careless cyberpoker gesture or chat chatter that enables him to exploit his cybercommunity. Forget the stare ’em downs of the Old West; Chip sizes up his poker community from their words.

During the year of writing lull and poker ascendancy, Dixon struggles mightily under the weight of the literary label “master of the suburban mimetic,” hung on him by a major publishing house that declined to publish his third novel, presciently entitled Dead on Arrival.  Declined even though one of his two published novels, the well-reviewed Plague Boy, is on retainer in Hollywood. Problem is that neither Plague Boy nor his second novel, Love: A Horror Story, are selling. His agent isn’t answering his e-mails, and his writing peers are succeeding wildly.

But then … being himself, despite what he sees of his soul in the mirror, is not all bad. His bank account still holds most of the $500K he won during the last year, and anyway, he’s a plenty good enough poker player to protect his winnings from a Swedish horse butcher in a face-to-face challenge.  He returns to New York to face B2W and learns that B2W brought “all his butcher knives and axes and whatever” ― all of ’em ― to face Dixon and get back his “moneys”; and  that Second Gunman will come from Blackpool, England, to New York to protect Chip, his best mate. Gunman “couldn’t have that Viking bastard cuttin’ me best mate’s head off with a horse butcher hatchet,” could he?

Chip is comforted no end that there’ll be somebody in the same room with him and B2W. And his best mate, Gunman, is one big dude.

As he waffles his way toward the mirror in Purgatory and the realization he is never going to morph into George Clooney, so many compete with Dixon for looks at themselves that it’s hard not to sympathize with him. Except on alternate pages, where you’ll want to strangle him for his perfidy. Dixon is able to ignore his negative insights as he thrashes about. His poker prowess makes the timid narcissist ever bolder as he goes.

All of which beautifully sets up the climactic Big Game between Chip Zero and the Swedish horse butcher ― but with the difference that the players will sit face to face while they play The Big Game on Pokergalaxy.

Saying more would give away the lovely ending.

The story works beautifully at the edge of the ether between online intimacies and fleshly endeavors, a purgatory that will no doubt be examined and reexamined in literature for the next few years.

A satire with something for everyone: gambling addicts, narcissistic artists beset with workshop angst, veteran attendees of literary readings, literary agents who are clever enough to create a twin to avoid face-to-face meetings with clients, pompous publishers needing help with their declension letters ― all wrapped up in smart literati humor and urban savvy .

And, his narrator’s disdain for Twain notwithstanding, Heller fashions a road trip through the heartland to rival, for humor, Huck Finn’s boat ride down the river.

Reviewers of Ted Heller’s novels should be forewarned that an emboldened Frank W. Dixon (not named for the author of the Hardy Boy series, according to his parents) is still out there; plotting literary vendettas on negative reviewers and others, dead and alive, who don’t recognize his genius.

Or as he now says, I am my grudges.

Wayland Stallard writes from a mountaintop in Hollins, Va. His work has appeared in Virginia Country, The Northern Virginia Review, and The Minnesota Review. He is looking for a publisher for his novel Good at Dying and his collection “Waking Up With the Mules.”

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