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Few literary forms are more quintessentially American than film noir and the considerable body of pulp fiction from which it derived. Novelists like Dashiell Hammett [Maltese Falcon (1930)], James M. Cain [The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) & Double Indemnity (1935)], Kenneth Fearing [The Big Clock], William P. McGivern [The Big Heat], Whit Masterson [Touch of Evil], Cornell Woolrich], Jim Thompson, etc. and directors like Fritz Lang, John Huston, Jacques Tournier, Alfred Hitchcock, and the like, cranked out a series of crackling stories that all followed essentially the same plot: a reasonably decent, though not too bright, "hero", who typically lives a little too close to the line between good and evil for comfort, succumbs to either the beauty of a femme fatale or of a scheme he's dreamed up or both, ends up crossing that line, and ultimately pays a terrible price for his transgression. Our certainty that a nearly Biblical retribution will be wreaked upon the transgressors never diminishes the drama as we watch them descend into sin, though it does make it even more painful to witness their self-destruction. And the stories are nearly all told in the first-person, almost like confessions, which heightens our empathy for the poor losers, even as their words serve as warnings to us. It's a powerful, durable, and oft-imitated form. In a strange, discomforting way, it is just such an arc that undergirds Positively Fifth Street

This is a shaggy dog of a book, that tries to tell several stories at the same time. Mr. McManus is a poet, novelist, teacher at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, and poker enthusiast. This combination gave him an interest in a Las Vegas murder trial--the killing of Ted Binion, son of the Horseshoe Casino founder, by his ex-stripper girlfriend and her lover--helped him "wangle" an assignment from Harper's to cover an all-female competition at Binion's World Series of Poker at the Horseshoe; and led him to plead with his wife for permission to not only go to Vegas to do the story but to use his $4,000 advance from the magazine to try and win a seat for himself in the World Series. Along with these three major plotlines, he also works in a histories of poker, of Las Vegas, and of the Binions; musings on why we gamble; profiles of many of his fellow competitors; a rather thorough analysis of all the extant literature and movies that involve poker-playing; family reminiscences; the sometimes sordid details of his "investigation" into the Binion murder; the ongoing negotiations with his wife, back home in Illinois with their daughters, one twenty-one months, the other six months old; and his own use of tranquilizers to get himself to sleep each night. If that sounds like an awful lot to keep track of, it is. In fact, at various times different plots just disappear for quite lengthy periods--especially the trial--only to reappear at somewhat disorienting intervals.

If we hack through the tangle though, we come back to the aforementioned film noirish theme that unifies at least the main stories. The book opens with the author's imagined--graphically imagined--version of the murder of Ted Binion, a murder wherein the stripper and her lover pumped heroin into the handcuffed victim during a sexual romp, then burked him. Even before the tale starts though, there's a reproduction of a picture of that someone in Vegas made up, with the characters from this real life drama inserted into an LA Confidential movie poster:
It's practically ushering the reader into the theater and the recreated murder begins what will become a very weird subtext of the book in which Mr. McManus associates himself with Ted Binion, maybe even envies him.

It's only at the beginning of the next chapter that the author inserts a photo of his wife. Here too he explains that he has a kind of dual personality (not a clinical disorder, mind you): a Good Jim--the writer, teacher, husband, father; and a Bad Jim, who seeks thrills, like those available at the card table. During the dispute over whether he'll get to risk their money on entering the World Series, "Bad Jim" proclaims to his wife: "Part of me dies every time a plane leaves O'Hare for Las Vegas and I'm not on it!" Suffice it to say, she yields.

Much of the book that follows is very good. Mr. McManus actually qualifies for the tournament and then to even his own astonishment plays well enough to make the final table and have a shot at the grand prize of about $1.5 million. His writing ability serves him particularly well here as he keeps what could have been the obscure or static rendition of the card-playing clear and often thrilling. He does slip into far too much jargon--almost as if Bad Jim is taking over--and only the most studious reader will have the patience to try and disentangle every bit of slang he tosses around. One of his affectations at the card table is fairly odd--has a memory book with pictures of his wife and girls that he keeps open next to him. One supposes it's meant to be heartwarming, but given the rest of the story it seems almost as if he needs to be reminded they exist. What else is going on is an inordinate amount of time spent with women--the female poker players; strippers at the clubs Ted Binion used to frequent; Ted's sister who now runs the Horseshoe; a hooker early one morning; and, finally, after the tournament ends, what can only be seen as a betrayal of his wife, regardless of the precise details of what happened.

This last comes as the third in a set of anti-climaxes (or, perhaps, climaxes). The accused are found guilty in the murder trial. Which is all well and good except that by opening with a murder scene in which he imagined them committing the crime, he's robbed the conviction of any drama. Second, he eventually loses in the poker finals. Third comes this sexual escapade, a giving in to Bad Jim that's predictable but still despicable. After trying--I thought successfully--to clean up its image in the 90s, Las Vegas has recently been running a disgraceful set of tourism ads with the slogan: "What happens here, stays here." As if you can take a vacation from your conscience and from moral scruples because you're there.

Well, you can't. And so we're back to the noir theme again. At this point in the story we're entitled to expect that something terrible will happen to him. It doesn't. Not only that, but by then, the story having become a kind of confessional, but he having escaped punishment, it's as if we're implicated in his sin. Are we supposed to forgive him, as his wife does, and admire his honesty? Or shouldn't we rather be even further appalled that he's airing this humiliation of his wife before the whole world?

There's plenty to recommend this book, but it ultimately disappoints. Justice is served at the trial, but somehow a guilty party walks. American noir isn't supposed to end that way.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

See also:

Sports (General)
James McManus Links:

    -BOOK SITE: Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker by James McManus (FSG Books)
    -BOOK SITE: Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker by James McManus (Written Voices)
    -EXCERPT: First Chapter of Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker by James McManus
    -ESSAY: FORTUNE'S SMILE: Betting big at the World Series of Poker (James Mcmanus, December 2000, Harper's Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Virtues, Values and Vegas (James McManus, May 6, 2003, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: TREKKING THE CITY OF LIGHT: Exorbitantly abroad with Mademoiselle du Pamplemousse (James Mcmanus, April 2000, Harper's Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of POKER NATION: A High-Stakes, Low-Life Adventure Into the Heart of a Gambling Country. By Andy Bellin (James McManus, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE MONEY AND THE POWER: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America, 1947-2000 By Sally Denton and Roger Morris (James McManus, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: AN EMPIRE OF WOMEN By Karen Shepard (James McManus, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A DANGEROUS FRIEND By Ward Just (James McManus, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of RENATO'S LUCK By Jeff Shapiro (James McManus, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of BIRDS OF AMERICA: Stories By Lorrie Moore (James McManus, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of WHERE THE SEA USED TO BE By Rick Bass (James McManus, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of 33 MOMENTS OF HAPPINESS: St. Petersburg Stories By Ingo Schulze (James McManus, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of LITERATURE OR LIFE By Jorge Semprun (James McManus, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of FOLLOW ME By Paul Griner (James McManus, NY Times Book Review)
    -PROFILE: Good Jim and Bad Jim and Mostly Lucky Jim (JODI WILGOREN, NY Times Book Review)
    -ARCHIVES: "james mcmanus" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker by James McManus (Robert R. Harris, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Positively Fifth Street (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times)
    -REVIEW: of Positively Fifth Street (Kim I. Eisler, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Positively Fifth Street (Gerald Nicosia, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Positively Fifth Street (PHIL KLOER, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Positively Fifth Street (Adrienne Miller, Esquire)
    -REVIEW: of Positively Fifth Street (Todd Leopold, CNN)
    -REVIEW: of Positively Fifth Street (David L. Beck, San Jose Mercury News)
    -REVIEW: of Positively Fifth Street (Joe Jarvis, New City Chicago)
    -REVIEW: of Positively Fifth Street (Gregory Crosby, Las Vegas Mercury)
    -REVIEW: of Positively Fifth Street (Jamie Berger, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Positively Fifth Street (Jeff Baker, The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW: of GOING TO THE SUN By James McManus (James Marcus, NY Times Book Review)

Book-related and General Links:

GENERAL:
    -ARCHIVES: Death of Ted Binion (Las Vegas Review Journal)
    -ARTICLE: 838 Jokers, One King: A record 839 players entered the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas this week, where gambling legends can be taken down by unknowns. (NY Times, 5/21/03)

Comments:

I think Orrin's review is overly critical of McManus' behavior. Except for his last evening at the strip club and his lapdance, all of his connections with women were professional in nature. Of course he had to talk to the women who were competeing in the tournament and Ted Binion's sister, that was his assignment. I felt that the point of the story was his adventures in the World Series of Poker and his immersion into the sordid world of Ted Binion, ultimately led to his paying off most of his mortgage and putting away a portion of money for his daughters' college funds. This is a classic story of a man going out into the world on an adventure that ultimately leads to enriching his family. I enjoyed the book thoroughly, although I agree with an earlier comment that it is too long. I could have done with less McManus family history. I think most men of the baby boom era have a similar mix of good and bad parts of their personalities. Positively 5th Street is a very good read.

- Bob Birk

- Jul-07-2003, 17:15

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What a prudish review. In fact, it's McManus's lickspittling to his wife that bring the book down from a lively account of The World Series of Poker and the Ted Binion murder trial to a middle-aged Catholic mea culpa--and that's a shame.

The book is if anything enlivend by McManus's account of his extra-curricular journalistic endeavours. To suggest or place guilt on the author for his accurate and perhaps compromising reportage displays a dismaying Victorianism one would hope would be absent from modern book reviews.

I would grade the book a B or B+, with points taken away for rushed editing. Several of the chapters, notably about the author's family history, are clearly inserted late into the game (no pun intended) and with little payoff. This story was probably a great Harper's piece (the original assignment) that was expanded into a book 20% too long.

Other than that, the accounts of the game-play itself are riveting and exciting, even if they force the reader to concentrate and bone-up on poker a bit. The accompanying glossary is helpful. I came away using terms like "the flop" and "the river" as if they were second nature.

Finally, McManus salts the work with some real moments of poetry. There are more than several well-turned phrases which will cause grins among anyone worldly enough to appreciate Vegas for what it is.

- Sam Taylor

- May-31-2003, 19:36

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