A boy copes with Catholicism, nuns, and such forbidden fruit as girls and gambling in a collection of closely related stories.
In these seven probably autobiographical tales, McManus (Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, 2010, etc.) follows the thoughts and urges of Vincent Killeen as he ages from 9 to 17 in the 1950s and '60s. Vince is initially devout enough to feel he may have a “calling” to the priesthood, which would delight his grandmother and spare the entire family any time in purgatory, according to Catholic lore. He also appreciates baseball and language, tales of an older relative’s hitch in the navy, the provocative lyrics of “Louie Louie,” the sight of Laura Langan’s bare legs two pews ahead of him at Sunday Mass, and the first inklings of his skill at poker. McManus’ writing is deceptively artless: mundane details related in Vince’s slowly maturing voice track the unexceptional life of a middle-class Irish-American Catholic family in a Chicago suburb, with the obligatory JFK portrait on the wall and the obliging production of numerous offspring. Yet the author gradually forms these common facets of simple people into a sharp, intimate portrait of an intelligent, inquiring mind embracing, then questioning, and inevitably pulling away from the beliefs and strictures of home life. McManus, a novelist and nonfiction writer, has played poker for high stakes in Las Vegas, and in Positively Fifth Street (2003), he wrote a classic about the game with riveting descriptions of poker hands. He achieves that again here in two sessions that have Vince facing very different opponents and challenges. The ironic and irreverent humor mined from Catholic arcana may bemuse the uninitiated, and anyone might question the author’s impulse to catalog Vince’s every erection. But then Catholics probably had little problem with the parallel challenges of Portnoy’s Complaint.
With this plainspoken, highly readable coming-of-age story, McManus adds another winning hand to a growing body of work on the hearts and souls lost to the game of poker.