March 23, 2009

Navajo in Deadman's Poker

Deadman's Poker: A Novel (Mass Market Paperback)From Publishers Weekly

Gambling expert, casino consultant and retired cop Tony Valentine is back, along with his grifter-made-good son, Gerry, in the satisfying sixth installment of Swain's cards-and-cons thriller series (after Mr. Lucky). Gerry's lifelong friend Jack Donovan tells Gerry he's concocted an undetectable scheme that "can beat any poker player in the world," but dies before he can let Gerry in on it. Though ruled a suicide, Gerry is convinced Jack was murdered. Gerry's investigation leads him and his reluctant father to the World Poker Showdown in Las Vegas, where they encounter tournament darling Skip DeMarco, the legally blind nephew of a notorious mobster. Every expert Tony and Gerry speak with thinks Skip is cheating, but no one can prove it—making the Valentine boys wonder to whom Jack may have told his secret before he died. As always, Swain makes his encyclopedic mastery of gambling lore and technique look easy, and he handles Gerry and Tony's turbulent relationship with thought and humor, giving weight to the parallel dynamic between Skip and his Mafia uncle. Though many of the other supporting characters are forgettable, Swain's knowledge of the con, and of his leads, make this novel a pleasure.

Review

“Mixing humor, suspense, poignancy and insider lore, Swain is one terrific writer.” –The Wall Street Journal

“Swain has hit on a winning combination. . . . [Valentine] is the kind of man you wouldn’t mind having on your side in a high-stakes poker game, let alone the game of life.” –The Washington Post Book World
Comment:  Deadman's Poker has a character named Bill Higgins who is "Navajo by birth" and has "the demeanor of a statue." After this semi-stereotypical introduction, Higgins's ethnicity is never mentioned again.

If you read the passage at the link above, you'll see no sign of his being an Indian. And no sign of his having the "the demeanor of a statue." Given his name and attitude, you'd expect him to be a typical Anglo-American. Making him a Navajo seems gratuitous--an example of tokenism.

But Higgins is apparently a continuing character in the series. Here's a passage from an earlier book, Sucker Bet, about the fictitious Micanopy casino in Florida:At seven the next morning, Chief Running Bear, leader of the Micanopy nation, sat in his double-wide trailer a hundred yards behind the casino, staring at a pair of identical TV sets. Two hours earlier, a phone call had awoken him from a deep sleep, and now he rubbed his eyes tiredly while staring at the dueling images. On one TV, a casino surveillance film showed an employee named Jack Lightfoot dealing blackjack. A player at Lightfoot's table had won eighty-four hands in a row, a feat that Running Bear knew was statistically impossible. The player had never touched the cards, ruling out sleight of hand. There was only one logical explanation: Lightfoot had rigged the game. On the other TV, a second surveillance film showed Lightfoot standing in the casino parking lot, smoking a cigarette. Before running the tapes, Running Bear had gone through Lightfoot's personnel file. He was a Navajo and had come to work for the Micanopys with a glowing reference from Bill Higgins, another Navajo, who happened to run the Nevada Gaming Control Board. Indians did not lie to other Indians, and Running Bear could remember Higgins's words as if it were yesterday. Jack wont let you down, Higgins had said. Running Bear shook his head. Jack Lightfoot had let him down. He was a cheat, and a damn good one. Bill Higgins had once bragged to Running Bear that he knew every goddamned cheater in the country. So why hadn't he known about this one?This passage has several problems:

  • A Florida Indian with the stereotypical name "Running Bear."

  • A chief monitoring a casino floor himself. This is unlikely and probably illegal. Tribal gaming regulators are supposed be independent of the tribal chief and council.

  • The claim that Indians don't lie to each other.

  • A later claim that Indians can't tell white people apart.

  • In short, it seems author Swain doesn't write Indians very well.

    Despite these comments, Deadman's Poker is a good read (or listen, in my case). I'd give the first two-thirds of the book an 8.5 for keeping me hooked. But then it gets sidetracked and loses steam. The last third of the book is only a 7.0 or so and it ends abruptly--to be continued in the next volume.

    Overall rating: 8.0 of 10. Fun if you know Las Vegas and casinos and want to know how cheaters and scam artists play their tricks.

    For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

    1 comment:

    Melvin Martin said...

    Then, to me, the novel is shabbily researched - which always diminishes my enjoyment of any story in whatever format (especially cinema).

    But then, I'm the kind of reader-viewer that notices discrepancies that most people are not even remotely aware of.

    But then again, there are people who are truly world masters at picking out such errors - like a friend of mine that I went to see one of the Star Wars movies with back in the early '80s. After the movie, over a few double mint juleps, she listed about 40 bloopers that were all high-tech related that I would never had known about, e.g., in aerodynamics, astrophysics, linguistics, et al.