THE WILD CARD

Mark Joseph, Author . St. Martin's $24.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-312-26120-7

"Poker," thinks Bobby McCorkle, "is monotonous, routine work." Unfortunately, the same might be said of Joseph's repetitive, disappointing and cynical fifth novel (Deadline Y2K; To Kill the Potemkin). One summer night in 1963, Bobby and his four closest friends from high school—Alex, Dean, Nelson and Charlie—along with Sally, a beautiful 16-year-old runaway, boat along the Sacramento Valley's Feather River, drinking and playing cards. Before the night ends, Sally is dead, and the lives of the five young men have been irrevocably altered. Bobby, once bound to study at Berkeley, decides instead to enlist and heads straight for Vietnam. The other four begin to meet every year, mostly to play high-stakes poker, but also to prove to themselves that their awful secret is still safe. When Sally's remains are discovered in May 1995, the four, after decades of trying, finally convince Bobby—their "wild card"—to return for the game. A professional poker player, Bobby is drawn by the possibility of a big score, but he also wants to hear the others' versions of what happened on the banks of the Feather. Like characters in a sort of lightweight Rashomon, each player has a different take. The only thing they do agree upon is that the time has come for a price to be paid. Most of the novel takes place around a card table, and with Joseph's less-than-subtle, workmanlike style, the conversation isn't exactly engaging. The characters are badly drawn types, the ending is easily predictable and clichés and sloppy constructions abound. Though Joseph clearly knows poker, his book has as many weak joists as a house of cards. (Aug.)

Forecast:Fold.

Reviewed on: 07/30/2001
Release date: 08/01/2001
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