Book Review - Positively Fifth Street : Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker

, in Books, Nonfiction

By James McManus

A disgraced millionaire scion of Vegas royalty is found CSI-level dead in CSI-level suspicious circumstances. The prime suspects (his much younger girlfriend and her new low-life boyfriend) are promptly put on trial for clich├ęd murder in the super-obvious degree. The resulting media circus attracts reporters from around the country and Harper's Magazine decides to send James McManus to do an in-depth article. Our hero takes Harper's $4000 advance and immediately uses it to enter the world's biggest poker tournament, coincidently held at the casino owned by the family of the murdered man.

Positively Fifth Street is an account of McManus's journey through the poker tournament interspersed with little bits of Vegas lore and occasionally a titbit about the trial he is supposed to be covering. Texas Hold'em poker was shortly to undergo an improbable boom in popularity but back in 2000 it was almost a quaint game with fulled with colorful characters that fit right in to a sleazy Vegas memoir like this and they jump off the page as McManus interacts with them over the green felt.

McManus is a good writer but I found the book a little hard to read on account of him also being an arseholeI don't have anything against arseholes or even arsehole authors; I grew up reading Asimov. Plenty of books are written by arseholes but I find arsehole memoirs are a little hard to take. The book begins with him arriving in Vegas after leaving his wife with a new baby at home. He spends a few pages debating whether to spend the four grand advance on entering the tournament or paying the mortgage. He doesn't want to disappoint his hot young wifeHow hot and young is she? Apparently pretty hot and young. There are several paragraphs describing how hot and young she is. but the lure of the tables is too strong. He has the annoying habit of telling us how he totally sees through the sleaze and poor impulse control of his fellow Vegas inhabitants while being sleazy and rather idiotic himself. You either rise above it or wallow - either can be entertaining but you can't do both.

Year 2000 James McManus desperately wants two things. First, to be Hunter S Thompson (whom he admires, frequently namechecks, and unwisely attempts to emulate), and secondly to win the poker championship. He makes a decent effort at both but only really gets close to succeeding at the later. Still, he can spin a good yarn and the competition is probably more interesting than the trial.

Remember the trial? The whole reason McManus was there in the first place? McManus eventually does as well and devotes the first few pages of the book to a lurid description how the murder might have gone down and the last chapters to how the trial turned out but it actually isn't that interesting. The defendants look as guilty as hell but most of the evidence is hearsay which doesn't count even when some of the hearsay is "She told me she was going to kill her husband". Both defendants were found guilty but an afterword in the book mentions the verdict was promptly overturned which makes the first few pages pretty pointless and the subtitle of the book 33% less accurate.

I didn't actively hate this book as much as the proceeding paragraphs might indicate; McManus did have an interesting few weeks in Las Vegas and if you can stomach it there is an interesting tale here behind the grating author.

Recommended only if you like this sort of thing.