An excellent tale about humans testing their limits and their human qualities. That sounds like a stretch for a story about stud poker, but Jessup does it well in this short novel. Because while the story appears to be about poker, really it’s about the Kid of the title. It’s like the description of a cigarette someone once gave me: smoking itself—whether for satisfying an oral fixation or looking cool or whatever—isn’t really the object of putting fire to a cigarette and inhaling the fumes from its immolation; instead, a cigarette is actually just a transport device for nicotine. In this case, the novel—The Cincinnati Kid—uses poker to show the reader who the Kid really is.
This is only the second novel by Jessup I’ve read. The first—a western titled Wyoming Jones—isn’t nearly as good as this story. It’s essentially a pulp western featuring some hardcases driving a plot to its conclusion. The Cincinnati Kid is an honestly hard-boiled novel about people maneuvering to control the events in their lives. The tone is consistent and believable from start to finish. Whether Jessup’s writing improved between 1958 (Wyoming Jones) and 1963 (The Cincinnati Kid) or he could handle contemporary settings better than westerns, I can’t say. Maybe the latter is more on target, for Ed Gorman (whose discerning eye for writing I’m willing to trust) has stated about Jessup’s pre-western writing,
We first see Jessup in the early `50s when Gold Medal was promoting him as their own angry young man. The books were thick and dealt with social themes such as race and juvenile delinquency. I haven't read them in years but I remember liking them.
Or perhaps Jessup was sufficiently inspired and influenced by Walter Tevis’ The Hustler (for like Tevis' Fast Eddie, the Kid is a young gun who challenges the top player in his field) to sustain the proper voice throughout the novel.
There's honesty and reality in that voice. Jessup relies on some of his own history to flesh out the laconic Kid: according to a 2017 article from The Poker News, Jessup spent time working as a dealer in a Harlem gambling joint, which allowed him to play with the professional card-players’ jargon so believably in the novel. Further, there’s the sense of emptiness in the Kid’s background. Jessup spent his youth growing up in orphanages, and the reader’s realization that the Kid’s quest--at least part of that quest--throughout the tale is to build a family may come after turning the last page. It’s evident in how he relates to the other card players in his circuit, especially to his mentor, The Shooter; in how he reacts to the departure of “his woman,” Christian Craigie, and how he talks with her afterwards.
As an aside, I was surprised that this novel—which takes place nearly entirely in St. Louis—veers off to the Ozarks near its midpoint, predating Daniel Woodrell’s remarkable narratives set in the Ozarks; but the Kid’s adventures there are quite different from the sorts of tales Woodrell’s characters live out in those hard-scrabble backwaters.
Jessup handles all these elements masterfully, never showing off to appear “literary,” but telling his tale in its pared-down style and disguising it as just a genre novel. The scenes of the poker match between the Kid and Lancey—“The Man”—are marvelously handled and Jessup builds tension in this stretch of prose seemingly effortlessly. (If all you know is Texas Hold'em, you owe it to yourself to read this and learn about stud poker.) By the end of the tale, Jessup has allowed the reader to see the depth of the Kid’s character without ever pointing it out explicitly. He does this so well, it’s quite possible the reader knows more about the Kid’s values than the Kid may know about himself.
It’s really an excellent novel. It’s short, too, so you can probably read it in a day or over a weekend. I recommend it.
Maybe now I’ll watch the Steve McQueen movie.