I was shelving books on Saturday morning and found myself picking up this book again and again. I don’t know if it was because I had just heard about the death of Paul Newman, who’s portrayal of Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler was one of his most memorable roles, or if it was because of the book’s arresting cover, showing legendary pool hustler Jersey Red leaning over a shot, glaring at the cue ball as if it killed his mother. I actually think it was because of the pool table my dad had in our rec room while growing up. I never got the hang of the game, but I would always love to watch my dad play. He was (is) a contractor, and works all day long dealing with angles in his head: managing multiple bank shots never was much of a problem for him.
The book chronicles the golden age of pool, starting with the career of Minnesota Fats in the 1920s, all the way through the sport’s down times in the 1950s and renaissance in the 1960s, due in large part to that film of Paul Newman’s I mentioned earlier. This is an excellent read: Dyer isn’t as much concerned about the sport itself, so you’ll read nothing about strategy, technique, or nuts-and-bolts of the game. Instead, this book is about the romance of pool – the shadowy figures, the backroom hustles, the short and long cons, the clashes between legends, and tournament triumphs and failures.
Dyer notes that there are two versions of the American Dream: one version is that a person will work hard, find opportunities, get a house and a marriage and a family and live happily ever after. The other version is that of the one person, alone, using their skills and wits and whatever else they can get their hands on, making their mark in the world, becoming respected and a bit feared by those around them. You can guess which one Dyer’s pool hustlers are. Living their lives from town to town, relying on their skill at the pool tables, each one chasing the dream through smoky backroom matches where people just might pull a gun after a loss than a wad of cash.