Ted Heller’s biting satire Pocket Kings would make a fantastic choice for a book group looking for something new. It’s the story of a novelist on a downward slide. His first book was well received by critics (if not particularly by readers), his second was widely panned, and his third can’t find a publisher. Even his agent won’t return his calls. His only sales come from readers who assume that they have purchased a new Hardy Boys novel. The protagonist has the misfortune of being named Franklin W. Dixon, and he won’t change his real name to avoid the nom de plume used by generations of Frank and Joe’s chroniclers.
At first as a diversion, then as a source of revenue, and ultimately as his main social connection, he finds himself plunging ever deeper into the world of online poker. Using the name Chip Zero, he finds easy money, popularity, excitement, and even romance, although everything but the money is virtual. Unable to tell his loyal wife how he is actually spending his time, he engages in an elaborate charade to convince her that he is still writing and working.
As Heller’s novel progresses, the degraded state of Dixon’s writing career grows increasingly desperate, but the dark humor of his plight gets increasingly funny. His mania for the safe but still exciting online world also gets worse, culminating with some pathetic but hilarious road trips with some of his online friends, trips in which they find their relationships, their poker skills, and their constructed personas really don’t work in real life.
Good satire isn’t easy. If it doesn’t succeed, it’s often painful and ugly to read, but Heller combines successful pokes at the literary world with some very timely topics here, creating an angry, funny tour-de-force.