In our latest Notable Narrative, “The High Is Always the Pain, and the Pain Is Always the High,” we meet Jay Caspian Kang, a gambler who dreams of being a novelist. Kang’s essay from The Morning News shares harsh knowledge about the ways in which life and story can intersect.
On a surface level, Kang’s first-person account of winning and losing in Vegas (and New York City and the aptly-named Commerce, Calif.) brims with details that instantly convince. He presents the language of cards as a dialect that does not need to be completely understood in order to be appreciated. Notice how he draws the reader in by using the second person and “Hold ’em” terms:
Hit a set of 6s on a J-6-2 rainbow flop against the Donkey at the table, the one who is wearing a fake Versace rayon shirt whose outrageous patterning is the only thing taking attention away from his Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses and the poor, doting, usually underage girlfriend who sits behind his right shoulder, awash in the illusion that her boyfriend is Paul Newman from The Hustler – well, win $5,000 off a guy like that and you stop worrying about ethics and your misspent youth.
Early in the essay, Kang tells one of his poker friends that he hopes to write a book, and the friend asks if it will be about “Hold ’em, Stud, or Omaha.” The comment is a tip-off: for problem gamblers, the notion of any reality entirely distinct from gambling is impossible.
Kang casts his own account into the center of modern storytelling, with its “vainglorious” literature of addiction, even as he argues that gambling narratives in popular culture are skewed to fabulous wins. Rising tension offsets his internal paralysis as he plays a game in which he asks himself, “Who can get up from this table?” The answer – even after he sometimes makes it as far as the parking lot and his car – is not “Jay Kang.”
Massive wins and losses dot the landscape of Kang’s story as he drives toward a improbable series of events in Las Vegas. But Kang wraps another story around his surface account, one that simultaneously dissects his gambling life as a narrative. Kang works on multiple levels to recount inevitable loss at the table as a descent into something both less and more than real existence: “a fate-bound story, as tragic and merciless as fiction.”