Road Trip!

Pocket KingsPocket Kings by Ted Heller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With the passing of Ray Bradbury went one of the most prescient minds in all of literature. Two of his creations from “Fahrenheit 451” have taken a pit bull’s grip on the way we interact with one another: the Seashell, with which Guy’s wife withdraws from him at night to listen to her own music, and the parlor walls that show television programs. The ultimate media purchase, of course, was the four-wall parlor that would show holographic television shows in the middle of the room — making it as though the owners had a new set of friends over for the evening.

Fast forward to the Walkman, and now the iPod in all of its forms. Fast forward to the online avatar, behind which any person can take on a new identity and actually BE that identity, at least as far as the rest of the chat room knows.

Enter Frank W. Dixon. No, he’s not the pseudonymous group of men who wrote all of those “Hardy Boys” books, although people mistake him for that conglomerate when he goes into bookstores looking for his own published work. Instead, he is a novelist who has written one decent novel, one bad novel, and then a third that is so dark and depraved that it disgusts the editorial assistants to whom he sends it. Indeed, his own agent has stopped contacting him — even enough to release Frank’s book back to him.

Caught in writer’s limbo, Dixon has a full-time job (the nature of which we never really learn) and a beautiful wife, but neither are enough to assuage the growing hole in his self-esteem. And so he turns to the world of online poker, becoming the avatar Chip Zero. Even as he gains weight and starts to look insane in real life, he takes on a grandiose form in the poker room, attracting the attentions of the Artsy Painter Gal and the watchful eye of the Second Gunman. Over the course of the story, Chip Zero builds up over half a million in winnings. Unfortunately, he forgets what it is like to be engaged in the real world. He goes to working half-days and then quits altogether; he sets up an all too real week of adultery in London with the Gal, only for his wife to find out (and for the week to have an even weirder conclusion).

The story is all too predictable, though, careening towards an ending that you can, if you want, guess about halfway into the book. The first-person narrator starts to sound like Richard Lewis in any of his appearances on “Crub Your Enthusiasm” after about 8 1/2 pages. Which is good if you like that sort of thing. The plot moves quickly, and there are some nice comedic touches, such as the banter on the cross-country cab ride that Chip Zero, Second Gunman and the Toll House Cookie (yes, THC) take in real life from New York City to Vegas, only to find that real-life poker is much too scary for them; they end up spending the week gambling via laptop.

However, I don’t like watching traffic accidents unfold over the course of several hours or days, and while I was reading, I would keep waiting for Frank to slap himself in the face, to wake up and realize the depths to which he has sunk, the life that he is missing. The only question, of course, is whether he will realize that he still has hands.

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