POKER FACE by Katy Lederer


A Girlhood Among Gamblers
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Elliptical memoir depicting a girlhood of deception and gradually receding naïveté.

Poet Lederer captures in deliberate, observant prose a gradually deteriorating middle-class life in the 1970s and ’80s, noting that “what I relished was the togetherness that came with total family conflict.” The youngest child in a competitive intellectual clan that seemed closest during card games, she felt perpetually outsmarted by her savvy, distant brother and sister, fearful of the conflicts between her rigid teetotaler father and her alcoholic mother. (They eventually separated; later, her father achieved fortune with the Anguished English series.) Her brother Howard left home early. His first year as a New York gambler was a sordid disaster—for such individuals, Lederer notes, luck “resembles nothing more than a mangled version of hope”—but he eventually rose to the upper echelon of professional poker players, as did her “preternaturally vicious” sister. The comparatively conservative Katy attended prep school and Berkeley; then, intimidated by her literary ambitions, she apprenticed herself to Howard as a poker player, her volatile mother having previously joined his quasi-legal bookmaking operation, and in a scheme to start a glossy magazine, PokerWorld. Her narrative captures both the sleazy underground gambling milieu and the glossy allure of the high-roller scene at top Las Vegas casinos. Despite Howard’s guarded approval, poker denizens warn Katy away from the lifestyle; “you can make something better than this,” says one. Wearied, she heeds this advice, enrolling at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as Howard’s operations are shut down by the Las Vegas police for being part of “a $400-million-a-year illegal sports betting network.” Lederer’s meditation on family and chance is finely written, yet suffers from a curious stasis: by the conclusion, Howard’s legal troubles have evaporated, and her kin have returned to the world of high-stakes gaming. She perceives the past with acuity, but arrives at only modest personal judgments.

Compact and well-executed.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-609-60898-3
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Crown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2003