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Playing Off the Rail
David McCumber
Publisher: Random House (1995)
ISBN: 0380729237
Pages: 365
Other Publisher: Avon Books (1997)
Reviewed: 1/97

When you buy a book subtitled, "A Pool Hustler's Journey," you can reasonably expect to get some sort of insight into the sleazy underworld of pool hustling, and the lowlife lifestyle in general. At least that's what I was expecting, and I don't think I was being unreasonable. And it seems like that's what should have happened here. The author staked a pool hustler to several months of pool and travel, and lugged his laptop around documenting everything they did. So what went wrong? Playing off the Rail is a harmless book in a genre that calls for a little more bite.

First, the book is repetitive. The authors move from city to city on a programmatic pool hustling trip, trying to find a big score. Sometimes they find it, sometimes they don't. Hearing about which shots went in when just isn't gripping enough to carry the book, and not much else that's all that interesting happens. Sometimes they find a game, sometimes they get the money, sometimes they don't. Ultimately, it seemed like they weren't even hustling all that enthusiastically, probably because neither of them really needed the money.

McCumber makes a minor effort here and there to philosophize about life on the road, the countryside, pool culture, etc. But he doesn't take much of a stand on anything, and doesn't stick with any topic for too long before getting on to the next game. He feels obligated to document every pool stop in detail, even if nothing all that interesting happens. And usually nothing all that interesting does happen.

I had the impression that McCumber had better material to work with, and just got caught up in a kind of reporting game. For example, early in the book he talks briefly about the background and assorted non-pool skills and interests of his traveling partner, Tony Annigoni. He makes Annigoni sound like an interesting guy, pool's renaissance man. But for the rest of the book, he's just a typical pool hustler. The most we get about his personality, beliefs, etc. is extensive documentation of his arsenal of personal insults, and occasional mention of his diet. Now, it's possible he really is a boring guy, but in that case I don't want to read a book about him.

There's at least a little bit of interesting material in the book, and it's hard not to get interested in the parts where really big money is on the line. But I think McCumber comes up short in failing to convey what's really interesting about the pool world.

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