Online Poker as Self-Destruction: Alexander J Allison’s “The Prodigal” Reviewed

The Prodigal
by Alexander J Allison
Civil Coping Mechanisms; 190 p. 

Martin, the twenty-one-year-old protagonist of Alexander J Allison’s novel The Prodigal, has much in common with many of his literary peers. He’s emotionally numb, depressed, and spends more than a little time online; he’s privileged, in a way, but would prefer not to acknowledge that. But Martin also has distinctive interests: largely, poker, both online and in situated in dimly lit London casinos. The novel’s title echoes Martin’s strained relationship with his parents, though it also isn’t hard to find the word “prodigy” buried in there and interpret it as applying to his penchant for games.

That might discount the fact that Martin, for all of his enthusiasm, spends much of the novel losing large sums of money. At times, his haplessness is darkly funny; at others, it serves as a pointed form of self-destruction. Alternately, Martin may have a wider target in mind: his affluent, emotionally remote father. Later in the novel, Martin will ruminate on exactly how much of his father’s money he has lost to gambling — and that tension between his own enthusiasm for the game and its use as a kind of weapon runs throughout the book.

Allison’s prose can be dense with references to poker, though those are often dolloped out liberally; one early passage sees Martin musing on lingo:

The game’s language exists to keep some fools out and trap even bigger fools in. You’ll have heard of donkeys and fish, but what of the rockets? What of the fishhooks and gay waiters? What of the suck and resuck, the gutshots and wraps and double belly busters?

He ponders this right up until the point that Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme enters his head, which “makes him feel sneaky.”

Sentences like “Martin is twenty-one — an age not worth lying about,” which sits at the end of the novel’s opening paragraph, suggest that we’re in the hands of a writer who understands pacing. For all that there are elements of alt lit to be found here, Allison also taps into a well-worn strain of drily comic fiction. At times, that tendency becomes even more brutally bleak: “During his second suicide attempt,” Allison writes, “Martin had been wearing a seat belt.”

For all of the ways in which he’s presented as vulnerable  Martin isn’t necessarily likeable. He’s referred to as “a dick” at one point, and that description seems relatively spot-on. That dickishness is largely explained, but — as with many an unlikable protagonist — much of the book summons tension from the question of whether or not he’ll seek to change his ways.

The Prodigal isn’t seamless. Some of the typographical choices used throughout — making certain words or phrases huge, and others tiny — felt unnecessary, the font doing what the prose had already accomplished. And though Allison does balance Martin’s anomie with the very real specter of his depression, the epiphany that closes the book — one that theoretically should be both liberating and shudder-inducing — doesn’t hit with the force that it should. Still, Allison makes his unlikable protagonist hard to shake. Allison’s evocations of poker — whether online or in unseemly casinos; whether enmeshed in a game or simply obsessing over particular players — is skillful and immersive. There is much to admire in this novel, and even more promise for the books that will follow.

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