Ace in the hole

Mark Joseph takes the pot with The Wild Card

Ask any of the “lifers” at a $2 poker table, in a ghostly gambling hall tucked into a forgotten Reno byway, why they call a green felt table their only home, and they may tell you exactly what Mark Joseph tells us in The Wild Card: “Poker is an absolute in a world that has rejected absolutes … it’s a perfect escape from reality if reality is too painful, yet poker can be the most painful reality of all. You can lose. You have to risk losing, and you put more than chips into the pot. You wager your soul.”

In The Wild Card, Joseph brings to the table a macabre game that reveals the darkness of the human psyche. He uses powerfully precise images and gnawing words that dig their way through the reader’s skin; he forces us to look down into the murky depths of the human soul on a hunt to discover what wild things may lurk there.

Mark Joseph opens The Wild Card as a skeleton is being uncovered on Shanghai Bend, an area on the shores of the Feather River near Sacramento. This is a skeleton that five friends from San Francisco put to rest 32 years ago, but the memory of that sticky summer twilight shadows their lives like the thick cloud of smoke that hangs over their poker table.

Alex Goldman, Nelson Lee, Charlie Hooper and Dean Studley have not seen the elusive Bobby McCorkle for 32 years, and in the wake of the discovery on the Shanghai Bend, they have invited him to join in as the fifth “wild card” player for their annual poker tournament. Bobby and the boys have history; he had once been the leader of the poker group they began as San Francisco teenagers and dubbed the Royal Flush. As young members of the Royal Flush, they found that poker “… resonated deep in their souls … they loved it and lived it and let it sweep them away like the current of a mighty river.”

These men, who once worshiped Bobby as much as Elvis, took something deeply personal from him on Shanghai Bend, and they have kept their secret for 30 years. Now, they have agreed to ante up and tell Bobby the truth about what happened on the fateful boat trip that swallowed up their innocence. But Bobby McCorkle has come to play for keeps in a game that will decide the fate of five lives.

The Wild Card‘s 293 pages are a brutally handsome display of plot, text and characterization. Joseph plays his hand masterfully as he leads the reader in a page-turning frenzy, constantly leading us deeper into the story and into the primal, animalistic minds of his characters, pushing each to the boundaries of reason and sanity.

For me to reveal any more of the text would be downright cruel. I will say that Joseph far from disappoints in the end, and I will take my leave with a final thought from The Wild Card: "At its best, poker is a facsimile of the human condition, charged with vigor and energy, fraught with whimsy and unexpected twists, and always ending in sudden death. The best man didn’t always win, but the best player, no matter what his character, almost always took the final pot."