Liars’ Poker

If anyone was surprised to see Owen Wister’s The Virginian in my “currently reading” sidebar recently, the explanation is quite simple: I want to read Cormac McCarthy sooner rather than later, and before I do that I’m going to make damn sure to read some Westerns. (See, even the first one is affecting my language.) This is my usual sideways way of doing things, and while I often appreciate these background books, I don’t really expect them to be all that good. I’m not sure The Virginian is necessarily “good,” either, but it was a damn good read. I mean, the Virginian is just so dreamy.

That, of course, is one of the things that really does make The Virginian extremely fun. The Virginian is less of a stereotype and more of a prototype—in fact, he seems like the ultimate stereotype for just that reason. And somehow even looking back on it, the birth of a genre makes old feel new again. Also, dreamy.

Unfortunately for her, Miss Molly Wood, the Virginian’s love interest, is not aware of generic conventions as I am and thus does not realize that of course she will marry this handsome, wild, dangerous young man. So she makes him court her for a couple years, during which time they go on lots of rides and walks and she lends him books to improve him. They have a number of entertaining conversations about those books (see, for example, Chapter 12, “Quality and Equality,” available at Project Gutenberg), and he also discusses some of them with the narrator, who is an educated man. When he meets the narrator on a business trip, he has Kenilworth with him, and comments, “Right fine story. That Queen Elizabeth must have cert’nly been a competent woman.” The narrator agrees, and the subject resumes again when the Virginian’s men are playing poker and the narrator suggests he join them.

“Poker? With them kittens?” One flash of the inner man lightened in his eyes and died away, and he finished with his gentle drawl, “When I play, I want it to be interestin’.” He took out Sir Walter’s Kenilworth once more, and turned the volume over and over slowly, without opening it. You cannot tell if in spirit he wandered on Bear Creek with the girl whose book it was. The spirit will go one road, and the thought another, and the body its own way sometimes. “Queen Elizabeth would have played a mighty pow’ful game,” was his next remark.

“Poker?” said I.

“Yes, seh. Do you expaict Europe has got any queen equal to her at present?”

I doubted it.

“Victoria’d get pretty nigh slain sliding chips out agaynst Elizabeth. Only mos’ prob’ly Victoria she’d insist on a half-cent limit. You have read this hyeh Kenilworth? Well, deal Elizabeth ace high, an’ she could scare Robert Dudley with a full house plumb out o’ the bettin’.”

I said that I believed she unquestionably could.

“And,” said the Virginian, “if Essex’s play got next her too near, I reckon she’d have stacked the cyards.”

The Virginian is not a bad poker player himself, and he has a wide view of the game.

“Now cyards are only one o’ the manifestations of poker in this hyeh world. One o’ the shapes yu fool with it in when the day’s work is oveh. If a man is built like that Prince [Hal] boy was built (and it’s away down deep beyond brains), he’ll play winnin’ poker with whatever hand he’s holdin’ when the trouble begins. Maybe it will be a mean, triflin’ army, or an empty six-shooter, or a lame hawss, or maybe just nothin’ but his natural countenance. ‘Most any old thing will do for a fello’ like that Prince boy to play poker with.”

The Virginian proves himself not unlike the prince on the way back home from this very business trip, when his men—he is acting foreman on the way back to the ranch after selling cattle—threaten mutiny to chase after claims of gold. Trampas, enemy to the Virginian, has been coaxing the other men from under his power, and the Virginian has no real way to stop them from leaving. The narrator, who happens to be present, wonders how the Virginian will pull it off. And the Virginian plays his hand in possibly the best scene of the novel.

The Virginian, the narrator, the men, Trampas, and several trainloads full of Easterners heading out West on vacation are all stuck on one side of a bridge that needs repairing, and they’ve eaten everything in the nearby town. The Virginian, who saw frogs’ legs on a menu for the first time just a few weeks earlier, when the narrator explained to him a bit about Delmonico’s, notices that they are all hanging around a swamp full of frogs and goes off to catch a sackful, proceeding to fry them up to everyone’s delight (they’re very hungry). Then, to this crowd full of people who can hardly believe what they’ve just eaten, he spins a mad yarn: there was once a great frog farm-swamp, and Delmonico’s and a competing restaurant in Philadelphia send frog prices through the roof in a wild fancy-food arms race with each other. The crowd is riveted; some of them know he is telling tales, others are ready to go find a swamp of their own and strike it rich. Eventually, the Virginian explains how greed and sickness drove the frog craze to end in a crash, a dénouement that, by design, blows the lid off the whole story.

Trampas is among the losers at this particular hand of poker. He was taken in, and he’s been made too much a fool by the reveal for him to lead the men off anymore. The Virginian has triumphed and will bring his men home, with not much more than his natural countenance to help him do it.

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