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Pocket Kings by Ted Heller

So. I’m most of the way through Pocket Kings by Ted Heller, author of the classic Slab Rat. And I keep thinking: Ted Heller is the same as Sam Lipsyte. Do these two guys know each other? They’re both sons of famous writers (OK, Heller’s dad is more famous than Lipsyte’s, but still). They write about the same character: an physically unattractive, mildly talented, borderline unethical shlub from New Jersey, a guy in his thirties or forties who goes through life powered by a witty resentment toward those who are more successful than him. A character who thinks a lot about his wife and about his friends his age, but never his parents or siblings. (A sort of opposite character from fellow Jerseyite Philip Roth / Nathan Zuckerman, whose characters tended to be attractive, suave, and eternally focused on the families of their childhoods. Indeed, the Heller/Lipsyte character is the sort of irritating pest who Roth/Zuckerman is always trying to shake off.)

It’s hard for me to see how Ted Heller and Sam Lipsyte can coexist in the same universe, but there you have it. One thing I don’t quite understand is the age difference: Lipsyte was born in 1968, which makes sense given the age of his characters, but Heller was born twelve years earlier, which makes him a decade or two older than the protagonist of Pocket Kings. That’s ok, of course—no requirement that an author write about people his or her own age—still, it’s a bit jarring to me to think about in the context of these particular authors, who seem so strongly identified with this particular character type.

One more thing. With their repeated discussions of failure, fear of failure, living with failure, etc., these books all seem to be about themselves, and their authors’ desire for success and fears of not succeeding.

Some works of art are about themselves. Vermeer making an incredibly detailed painting of a person doing some painstaking task. Titanic being the biggest movie of all time, about the biggest ship of all time. Primer being a low-budget, technically impressive movie about some people who build a low-budget time machine. Shakespeare with his characters talking about acting and plays. And the Heller/Lipsyte oeuvre.

I feel like a lot of these concerns are driven by economics. What with iphones and youtube and all these other entertainment options available, there’s not so much room for books. In Pocket Kings, Heller expresses lots of envy and resentment toward successful novelists such as Gary Shteyngart and everybody’s favorite punching bag, Jonathan Franzen—but, successful as these dudes are, I don’t see them as having the financial success or cultural influence of comparable authors in earlier generations. There’s less room at the top, or even at the middle.

And, as we’ve discussed before, it doesn’t do any help to professional writers that there are people like me around, publishing my writing every day on the internet for free.

Back to Pocket Kings. It’s not a perfect book. The author pushes a bit hard on the jokes at times. But it’s readable, and it connects to some deep ideas—or, at least, ideas that resonate deeply with me.

It’s giving nothing away to say that the book’s main character plays online poker as an escape from his dead-end life, and then he’s living two parallel lives, which intersect in various ways. He’s two different people! But this is true of so many of us, in different ways. We play different roles at home and at work. And, for that matter, when we read a novel, we’re entering a different world. Reading about this character’s distorted life made me question my own preference for reading books and communicating asynchronously (for example, by blogging, which is the ultimate in asynchronous communication, as I’m writing this in August to appear in January). Face-to-face communication can take effort! There must be a reason that so many people seem to live inside their phones. In that sense, Pocket Kings, published in 2012, was ahead of its time.


  1. Ben says:

    Pocket Kings seems like a good name for a book. It could be:

    1. Something about poker (didn’t know this one until Googling it)
    2. A gripping, insider account of the Rise of Hot Pockets (was there a betamax of microwaved, cheese-stuffed rolls?)
    3. Something about pool players
    4. Something about all the various monarchies bought out/propped up/installed by other countries/big companies.
    5. A history of pockets in clothes (where did cargo pockets come from?!)

    And more probably!

    Apparently Pocket King is a video game:

    • Andrew says:


      Is there a meta-principle here, that the best titles for specific works are also reinterpretable enough to be excellent titles for other projects. Titles are hard, and I say this as someone who’s had difficulty with good titles. I’ve had some great books and articles with mediocre titles.

  2. jim says:

    Perhaps the failure meme is less a function of the author’s success and more a function of their observations of the world they live in. Successful people generally don’t see those things.

    With FaceAppleGoogSoft booming, it’s easy to forget that the overwhelming majority of society lives in the UberZon world, working at low wage jobs and in the gig economy. Well under half of society has a college education. The median wage is still only about $50K. By the measure of what people expected in the 1950s-1980s, things really aren’t going well for a lot of people.

    When you put all the claims about racism and education etc aside and just look at society for what it is, it’s easy to see why Dems want more immigration and white working class people have a tendency to vote for Trump: poor immigrants think the US is great – they don’t remember a time when life was better; white working class people, on the other hand, remember much better times, even if it was in the previous generation.

    • jim says:

      Yes, but your point about “less room at the top” is a good one. It’s the paradigm of the modern world. Taleb writes a lot about that in Black Swan.

      • I meet a lot of people offline. And I make every attempt to expand my friendships. Since on Twitter, I’ve met the coolest Twitter connections offline. So many talented people.

        • jim says:


          Yes, there are SO MANY talented people in the world today! I think that goes along with the purported / documented growth in IQ. People are getting better at everything!

          Yet I think if you’re referring to the idea that there’s less room at the top, that’s nonetheless still true. A relatively small number of prodigious talents occupy the top rungs of commercial success because recording technology allows the prodigious to be everywhere at once. So you and I can both watch Tony Bennet and Lady Gaga sing “the lady is a tramp” instead of going to our local jazz clubs in our respective cities to catch the local talent. And I can even do it with live music: there must be 20-30 different RCHP full concerts recorded everywhere from Brazil to Australia on You Tube (the show from Slane Castle in Ireland is surely the best!).

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