Fontaine Press, 2010. 128p. www.damnedgood.com.au
Damned Good is a season in the life of the Rookie, an emerging poker player who takes the Perth poker scene by storm before heading to Melbourne to take on Australia’s best, Rawlins. It’s a short novel full of booze, cards and philosophising, with few first names but instead characters called the Rookie, the Kid, Rawlins, Indersmith.
It’s subtitled ‘a poker novel’, but it could as easily be subtitled ‘an existential novel’. For the Rookie, poker is a mode of existence, a lens to see the world through:
For him it was where he had to be.
Severe naked existence.
This was living in the world.
There was not a thing else like it.
Moments he guessed were like the cards falling from the deck, destined randomness and predetermined chance, opportunities bobbing up and it there for you to take or blow. (p.7)
It’s in high-stakes poker that the Rookie has found what it means to live authentically, dangerously. The novel may leave many readers wishing they were as cool as the Rookie. He’s a man who thinks existential thoughts, writes manifestos he burns, and can drink bourbon continuously without it affecting his poker.
The two writers this novel reminds me of most are William Gibson and Cormac McCarthy. The Rookie is a hero in the tradition of those streetwise heroes of Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, brilliant at what they do. The prose has similar crisp, unexpected metaphors. Yet it’s also close to the prose and characters of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, the brave cowboys who don’t say too much, but think deep thoughts and experience a kind of brutal beauty in their world. And the prose has a similar clipped, sparse beauty. Minimal dialogue, no speech marks.
After the climax of the showdown with Rawlins, the narrative is interrupted by an eight page booklet called “Authentic Poker”, presumably the Rookie’s manuscript, a cross between a poker manual and Nietzche.
Try to remember as often as possible that you will one day die. It is the surest method of allowing yourself to seek authenticity and essence with a full and unswerving heart.
Part Two skips forward a while in the Rookie’s life, after an ‘off-screen’ fall. The novel closes with a fascinatingly surreal poker game.
Damned Good is a worthy follow up to Deceglie’s debut novel, The Sea Is Not Yet Full. I love the evocation of a kind of underground Perth and Fremantle. It’s a compact and interesting story with a character and a milieu which are refreshing for Australian literature.