JAMES McMANUS' new book doesn't have the narrative arc of a novel, but it has the soul of one. A collection of seven "linked" short stories, The Education of a Poker Player follows the coming of age of Vince Killeen, an Irish Catholic kid growing up in 1960s suburban Chicago. Nicknamed "da Vinci"—and, later, "Duh Vinci" by his crueler classmates—we first meet Vince in third grade as a devoted altar boy who aspires to enter the priesthood. By the end of the book, Vince has grown up quite a bit: He's gotten his driver's license, lost his virginity, and acquired a love of poker. Naturally, his once-strong faith has wavered a little.
Despite the book's title, though, poker doesn't enter until the latter half of the book—McManus' real theme is Vince's Catholicism and his struggle with the burdens of religion in his formative years. More specifically, as Vince enters adolescence, the notion of staying celibate becomes less and less appealing, not to mention logical. He struggles internally with God, gets in trouble with the nuns at his school, and grows distant from his large, devout family—particularly his grandmother, a religious woman widowed by Vince's namesake, his WWI-veteran grandfather. (Confessions of a Poker Player might have been a more apt title. McManus' book shares its title with an actual 1957 poker manual by Herbert Yardley that makes an appearance in the story.)
The relationship between Vince and his Gramma is one spot where it becomes frustrating that McManus doesn't go one step further and draw a novel's throughline between his snapshots. All but abandoned later in the book, the pair's close bond is depicted with such care in the opening passages; she becomes totemic of Vince's Catholicism, having struck a bargain with her grandson that he'll go to seminary and make the family proud. Doctrine dictates that once he becomes a priest, all of his family, including Gramma, will be absolved of sin and ascend to Heaven.
This type of bargaining rolls over into Vince's developing love of poker, which replaces his faith and familial bonds. As with Catholicism, there's a strict rulebook in poker; the hierarchy of winning hands also parallels the church's convoluted power structure. And similarly, there's quite a bit of gambling in Vince's attempts to adhere to his faith. He constantly evaluates whether certain sins are worth confessing while others aren't; naturally, there are differing amounts of penance for each sin—just as some poker hands are worth more than others.
The parallels between poker and Catholicism aren't explicitly drawn, but they're undeniable, and this undercurrent is among The Education of a Poker Player's greatest strengths. McManus also does a terrific job of getting in the head of a horny adolescent boy. Finding a graceful area that's truthful without turning gross, he renders Vince's stultifying crush on a teacher, describes the underwear catalogs and skin mags that he jerks off to, and maps the precise hemlines of the skirts of his female classmates.
These high notes are strong enough that there's a bit of a hunger in the reader at Education's end. McManus' isolated stories work quite well—and the gaps of time between them illustrate Vince's growth far better than any exposition could—but I can't help but feel that a little more connective tissue could have made this a masterwork. The internal duel between Vince's faith and his fondness for vice, though, remains enough to make this a winning hand.