Under the Gun tells the story of Hal Harris, an earnest young straight who’s never played poker before in his life, but whose brother, Guy, lives deep in that degenerate demimonde. When Guy is murdered, Hal inherits an entry chip into the Poker Apocalypse, “the biggest poker tournament in the history of ever.” Desperate to unravel the mystery of Guy’s death, Hal sets out to skill himself up as a tournament poker pro, aided on his way by poker legend Slaughter Johnson; by a long cool redhead named Vinny; and by Minty McGinty, a giant Komondor dog not called “Minty” for his breath. Blocking his path is the formidable Marko Dragic, a sociopath with a plan to fix the Apocalypse, and with $70 million at stake, he’s not about to let a neophyte like Hal Harris stand in his way.
John gives an overview of the book:
The plane descended toward the setting sun, with the mountains on fire behind and the city in shadows and loud neon below. In the crowd around him Hal could feel the quickening pulse of anticipation. Soon these eager revelers would be scattered around town, hunting and chasing the Vegas buzz wherever they could find it: in the free drinks that the house so generously provided; in the stage shows presenting larger than life spectacles at larger than life prices; in the “escorts sent directly to your door”; in the all- night pub crawls that held out the tantalizing promise of real human contact (or anyway sex) but ultimately seemed to deliver only a big bar tab and a hangover of storied proportion. Vegas was like that. It stole so much: sleep, discipline, sobriety, time, common sense; and after it softened you up, it picked you clean. What got Hal was how they never stopped coming back, no matter how many times they went home broke. Insanity, he’d been told, was doing the same thing over and over again in hopes of a different outcome. He didn’t think they were all insane, just victims of selective memory – gamnesia, Guy called it – a bettor’s confirmation bias that filters out the losses and overstates the wins.
Then again, here he was, landing in Vegas again, trying to save his brother’s lost soul again. Insanity, they say...
Hal thought he would cab it to Guy’s apartment, but Friday night at McCarran Airport was impossible for cabs, with a line that snaked through switchbacks like Disneyland on Labor Day. He didn’t feel like waiting, so he went to the rentacar desk with the shortest queue and paid way too much for one of those new cheap Chinese imports, a subcompact Song Serenade with fine vinyl seat covers and all the pep of a narcoleptic rider mower.
Guy lived in a rundown housing complex called the Evergreen Apartments, a name which always amused Hal because there was never ever anything evergreen about the apartments or grounds – except possibly the pool, which was ever green with algae – or the surrounding avenues and streets. It took Hal an hour to get there, a slow, aching grind up the I-15 in an accordion crush of trucks, commuters, minivan cabs, and out-of-state platers. Frazzled and edgy by the time he arrived, he parked behind Guy’s building and made his way up the outside stairs to the second floor rear corner flat that Guy called home. He knocked on the door but got no answer. Not that he expected one. Guy had said that he had some things to take care of. Hal took this to mean harvesting the poker tourists, whose toxic cocktail of eagerness, impatience, and jet lag made Friday Guy’s big money night of the week. He had, he told Hal, made a study of this, and found Friday more profitable than, say, Saturday, because Friday was when most tourists blew into town and hit the poker tables all over-amped and under-skilled. By Saturday the good ones had found their feet and the bad ones had gone broke, leaving the tables top-heavy with locals who, like some latter day Donner Party, spent the evening more or less gnawing on one another’s legs. Floridly put, but Guy was florid like that.
Hal lifted the welcome mat to find Guy’s key. On the mat he read the words, The Sivapathasundaram’s. He couldn’t imagine where Guy had gotten this cheesy artifact – probably stole it off the Sivapathasundarams’ doorstep – but he knew it was the gratuitous possessive that tickled Guy. Words were to Guy what numbers were to Hal. They moved and delighted him, and sang to him in a way. But he was indignant about ignorant assaults on the language. As outlaw as Guy was in his lifestyle, he had a mocking contempt for anyone who couldn’t follow simple rules of grammar, and apostrophe catastrophes were his pettest pet peeve.
“Yoo hoo! Mr. Sivapathasundaram? Anybody home?” Hal stepped across the threshold into a living room littered with beer bottles, chips, coins, cash, playing cards, porno magazines, and promotional discs for online poker sites. An Australian flag draped over the back of a threadbare brown couch served as... what?... upholstery? Style? Above it hung a frameless print of dogs playing poker, staple-gunned to the drywall at an odd angle. Guy had taken a Sharpie and given the dogs dialogue balloons. “That’s not a hand, that’s a paw!” said one. “Call if you don’t like kibble,” said another, and, “Shut up, bitches,” snarled a third. Through an open archway Hal could see the kitchen, cluttered with the flotsam of Guy’s bad food habits: empty pizza boxes, a can of aerosol cheese... and a giant bag of dry dog food? Hal didn’t know Guy to have a dog, but couldn’t imagine his circumstances to have been that reduced, so he assumed dog, somewhere.
Hal went into the bedroom. On Guy’s night table stood an empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s with a candle jammed into it. This, along with a John Coltrane CD case and some empty condom wrappers, suggested a night of well I suppose you’d call it romance. Per the condom wrappers, Hal didn’t search too hard for further evidence.
There was a bathroom off the bedroom, and as he hadn’t had a pee since Pittsburgh, Hal decided to avail himself. A sign on the door – another purloined apostrophe catastrophe – proclaimed this the mens’ room. Hal walked in and squared up in front of the toilet. As he unzipped, a rustle of shower curtain caught his ear. Given the tiny, close nature of Guy’s flat, Hal couldn’t credit a refreshing cross breeze. Curious, he turned toward the sound – just in time to take a thick brick of crystal to the face.
He went down like a drunken co-ed, smashed his head against the sink, and remembered no more.
John Vorhaus is best known as the author of The Comic Toolbox: How to be Funny Even if You're Not. This seminal book on writing comedy for television and film is now in its third printing, and continues to be a definitive source of information and inspiration for...