“You want people to do what you want, you give them two choices: They do what you want or else.” (Joey Cadillac)
I’m not going to pretend that I know anything about poker, but I will explain that the term Drawing Dead, the title of Pete Hautmann’s caper novel, is also a poker term:
If an opponent has a made hand that will beat the player’s draw, then the player is drawing dead, so even if they make their desired hand, they will lose.
It’s an appropriate title as poker appears prominently in this entertaining, fast-paced, witty novel that should appeal to fans of Elmore Leonard. Author Pete Hautmann isn’t shy about creating his characters, and as a result they are a stand-out bunch of sleazy low-lifes with a range of bad habits, addictions and atrocious behaviors. The story begins with Chicago car dealer Joey Cadillac, “Joey C to his friends and customers, Mister C. to his employees, Joe Chicago to his Las Vegas investors, and occasionally referred to as ‘Stallion’ by Chrissy Swenson, his twenty-two-year-old side-squeeze, former Miss Minnesota, recently imported from the frozen wastelands of the north).” Chrissy isn’t the brightest bulb in the pack, but she knows how to work her middle-aged, boring lover, and when the book opens she’s cooing over Joey’s latest acquisition–vintage Batman comics that Joey exchanged for a beat-up Cadillac. Joey thinks he’s made a smart move by trading a 10,000 demo, “spun back to ten K on the speedometer,” for 30,000 K in rare comics notarized by Ben Disraeli and Tom Paine. Obviously Joey didn’t listen when his mother told him that if something looks too good to be true then you’re about to get screwed.
Joey C sets Freddy, his pea-brained 300lb henchman, a man with the deranged loyalty of a lobotomized Rottweiler on the heels of The Tom and Ben Show–a couple of cheap, slick con artists now heading for Minnesota in Joey C’s Cadillac. After dumping the fake Batman comics, they have a new con called The Galactic Guardians which involves a supposedly huge, rare comic collection worth millions. T0m decides to look up his former squeeze, sexually rapacious Catherine, Cat or Catfish who’s now married to the extremely wealthy, coke-addicted Richard Wicky (Dickie to everyone who can’t stand him). Wicky is sure that Cat is cheating on him, and he hires down-on-his-luck, former cop, Jim Crow to discover the identity of her lover.
“I want you to talk to the guy she’s seeing. I don’t even want to know who he is. I just want you to find him and get rid of him.”
Crow jerked his head back. “You want me to kill him?”
“I want you to pay him,” Wicky said.
“You want me to pay him,” Crow repeated, somewhat relieved.
Paying a woman’s lover money to go away is, of course, a stupid idea, but since it’s Wicky’s money, Crow doesn’t argue. Crow loathes Wicky–a man about to celebrate his 27th birthday but who is so blasted out by coke & alcohol that he looks more like a well-worn 50. Crow doesn’t like the sounds of the job, but he’s in no position to refuse–he owes the IRS, his precious jaguar XJS is at the mechanics generating an enormous repair bill, and he’s got the bug to buy an island cabin. Crow takes the job and the games begin….
Most of the characters in the novel become part of the circle-jerk of con artists, and with everyone trying to screw over the next person in the chain, the action, loaded with cheap hustlers is fast, furious, and funny. Poker, comic books, and a legendary porn collection all have a role to play in this story in which greed and lust overcome common sense. Everyone seems to have some sort of expensive costly bad habit–cocaine, women, alcohol, you name it, and on the others side of the bad habit divide is our hero, Jim Crow along with his neighbor, music booking agent/promoter, Debrowski –both graduates of Cocaine Anonymous who’ve both managed to stay clean in spite of constant temptation. Crow’s only vice these days is poker, and he happens to be a damn good player. Eager to make a few quick bucks, Crow gets sucked into an “investment” proposition, and Debrowksi doesn’t like the sound of it:
I think you’re getting sucked into the sewer. I think you’ll be lucky to come back up with your pockets full of shit.
Catfish Wicky, the book’s femme fatale, is a bad habit that belongs in a category all of her own. Completely amoral, and totally self-interested, sex to catfish has about the same importance as brushing her teeth–it should be done several times a day, you just get it over with, and it’s no big deal.
She swiveled her head slowly, taking in the room. “People are so boring, Joe. I get so bored I want to take my clothes off and scream. I saw you were watching me, Joe. I thought I’d better introduce myself. I don’t mind if you look at me. I kind of like it.”
While Drawing Dead is a light, fast-paced and entertaining read, the book contains some basic truths about human behavior. Hautmann’s characters, who indulge in various vices, are easily led by confidence tricksters with the promise of quick, vast wealth, and the author shows repeatedly how suckers buy ridiculous stories and get-rich-quick-schemes simply because they need so badly to believe that these stories, and their dreams, will come truth. In Drawing Dead, lust trumps common sense, greed overcomes caution, but a poker face goes a long way in winning the game.