I picked up James McManus’s poker book, ‘Positively Fifth Street,’ a few years ago after hearing it recommended on the ‘Rounders’ episode of ‘The Rewatchables’ podcast at The Ringer. The book sounded like an interesting true-crime story involving a murder, seedy Las Vegas and the World Series of Poker. Back in 2018, when I listened to the podcast, I was really into poker and had already reviewed two books about the game: ‘Every Hand Revealed’ by Gus Hansen and ‘The Theory of Poker’ by David Sklansky. I remember running an Instagram poll to ask whether you guys were interested in a review of yet another poker book. The answer was:
Friends, I should have listened.
Here’s the cover:
McManus, a novelist, journalist and teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, got a commission from Harper’s Magazine in 2000 to go to Las Vegas to write a story about the murder of Ted Binion (son of Benny Binion who owned Binion’s Horseshoe casino and created the World Series of Poker), the ongoing trial of his accused killers and the tournament itself. When McManus gets to Las Vegas, we see him struggle to gather material for his story. He bungles an interview with a key source. Reporting trips to the mall and a strip club go nowhere. He decides to pull a Hunter S. Thompson ‘Gonzo’-journalism move and uses his advance to buy into a poker tournament. The prize is the $10,000 entry fee for the World Series of Poker main event. Long story short, McManus gets into the WSOP and ends up at the final table, up against some of the best professional players of that time. His path there has a few riveting scenes of poker play, with lucky hands, tough calls and bad beats. But there also are plenty of cringe-worthy moments with off-color ethnic jokes, reviews of women’s cleavage and looks, references to erections going up and down, and assurances that the author has plenty of sex with his wife. ‘Positively Fifth Street’ also is packed with filler material, from pointless digressions (what did the stripper’s story about Mike Tyson have to do with anything?), to the author’s personal backstory (what does moving from The Bronx to Illinois have to do with anything?), to the history of cards and card games (OK, fine, this was interesting). While there are nuggets about the history of Las Vegas, details about the tournament itself and the trial feel mostly rehashed from other news sources. This is a scattered story where I didn’t feel I had to engage, or even pay much attention. Honestly, I skimmed a lot of the book, like:
I don’t know what McManus’s Harper’s story turned out to be because it’s behind a paywall, and I don’t feel like buying it. I had hoped his book would be a crisply reported tale of murder and gambling. Instead, it’s bloated, self-indulgent and crass. I’m happy McManus had success in the tournament. He pulled off an amazing feat of luck and guile. But there was not enough reporting and too much macho BS for my taste. I fold.
How it begins:
A nubile blonde squats on her boyfriend’s bare chest and he’s too stoned to do much about it. Nipple clamps? No sir, not this time. Even one would just be, like, way generous. Seizing him by the neck with both hands, she raises her shins from the carpet and presses her full dead weight onto his ribcage and solar plexus, forcing more air from his lungs. How’s that feel? As she rocks back and forth, they lock eyes. “You like that?” she asks, flirty as ever. “How come?” Her name is Sandra Murphy. When she wears clothes, her taste turns to Gucci, Victoria’s Secret, Versace. Her latest ride is the SL 500, in black. She used to work at a high-end sports car emporium in Long Beach, so she knows what the good stuff is. After that gig she moved to Las Vegas and danced topless professionally, but she hasn’t had to work in three years—not since she danced for the guy she is currently laying her hands on. “My old man,” she calls him sometimes, or “my husband,” especially since she moved in. And she would sort of like to get married. Settle down, kids, that whole deal. Not right now, though. Because you, you’ve got time, as Liz Phair advises in “Polyester Bride,” one of Sandy’s all-time favorite songs. Time to get rich, see the world, party hearty. And lately she’s been having the time of her used-to-be-not-so-great life. Million-dollar mansion, cute boyfriend, bionic sex, Benz, plus she’s keeping her looks, above all. That’s the key. In 1989 she was runner-up for the title of Miss Bellflower, a south-central suburb of Los Angeles. That was nine years ago, when Sandy was seventeen, but she maintains her dancer’s physique by working out five days a week, and she still keeps the sash in her closet. Most men, her boyfriend included, cannot get enough of her, especially the way she looks now. She is lithe, wet, determined, on top.
(Donna to me: ‘Seriously? You kept reading after this?!’)
‘Positively Fifth Street’ by James McManus was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2003 and by Picador in 2004. 436 pages including glossary, bibliography and index. $21.16 at Bookshop.org.
What book do you regret having read?
Before you go:
Read this: Writer Isaac Fitzgerald has a good newsletter called ‘Walk It Off',’ where he takes a walk with someone and interviews them. In this edition, he interviews author Min Jin Lee while touring the Met Museum, and she provides funny anecdotes about her time working there as well as sharp insights about art, gratitude and New York City.
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,