Reality's Honest Truth For Real: Gambler and Novelist Pete Hautman

Book Features
Reality's Honest Truth For Real: Gambler and Novelist Pete Hautman
Jun 14, 2001, 00:47

original illustration by Darren Goldman © 2001

“I'm going to make you rich.” 				—Drawing Dead

Strolling through life's mega mall of con jobs, we've all seen those fingers beckoning from the back rooms of risk. Invest in rare comic books, cough up bucks for stock in virtual reality gambling systems, rob a taco vendor of 260 long that he keeps in coffee cans in his motel room, or buy back a lost hubby. Turn your precious 32 thou into a million at poker.

If you're un-lucky enough to be a luck junkie in Pete Hautman's fictional world, you'll likely lose it all and get your face stomped, to boot. Someone will die violently. As the risk management begins to include guns and tire irons, you hire a private dick like Joe Crow, the coke-head cop, with money you don't have. Or, you manipulate the percentages all by your lonesome. Then watch your luck change. Really change.

For a guy who's familiar with every come-on in Rip-Off City, Pete Hautman, aka Peter Murray, the children's book author, is a pretty lucky guy. As a long time professional poker player, he manages—unlike his characters—to hover just this side of a gambling addiction. As a salesman selling everything from signs to lawn penguins, his ass is still attached. He's written six wacko adult novels, three young adult mysteries sure to raise “concerns,” and almost a hundred children's books (as Peter Murray) on everything from paper airplanes, to science tricks, beetles, snakes, porcupines, Sitting Bull, Thomas Edison, bones, pigs, sheep, spiders, and dirt.

About a decade ago he wandered into a Minneapolis mystery writers class dressed as a cowboy and rode into the sunset with the teacher, author Mary Logue. Shortly thereafter, having published nothing except a short article for a silk screen trade magazine, he sold not one, not two, but three books all in one load to Simon and Schuster in what the Wall Street Journal called “a sparkling debut.”

Peopling Hautman's arcade of violent make believe are world-class phonies with names to match, like Joey Cadillac, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, James Dean, Rich Dickie Wicky and his nympho wife, Catfish. And trying to gain altitude over this world of dogs eating dogs (in three early books: Drawing Dead, Short Money, and The Immortal Nuts) is the addiction-plagued gumshoe, Joe Crow.

Hautman's detective Crow, who looks like something between a “cigar store Indian” and “Wayne Newton,” begins his saga as a law enforcement officer in Big River, Minnesota (Short Money—which is the second in the series that acts as a prequel). He gets kicked off the force, not for ignoring speeders or sniffing “two fat white lines of cocaine decorating the black top of the police radio,” but for walking away and somehow forgetting that he handcuffed the Chief of Police's brother to a Hummer. Bummer. Crow is forced to work as a private dick in Minneapolis. But customers aren't easy to get. He needs work bad, real bad. His clients? They're bad. Real bad.

Through three novels, what happens to Crow in the process of trying to separate the real from the fake, is pretty much what happens to boulders after they've gone through a rock crusher. After three novels of cranial trauma it's a wonder that Detective Crow has any working brain cells at all. Probably as many as he has dollars once the accounts are settled.

Hautman's stories—both adult and young adult—have an interesting consistency of theme, the main one being the horrendous mismanagement of risk. If you're going to walk through customs, for example, with rubbers of cocaine concealed in your rectum, you'd better put on a damn good poker face when asked if you have anything to declare. If you're going to set up a chain of anti-aging clinics with actors made up to look old (then the make-up removed to look young), you'd better be willing to deal with disgruntled employees threatening to blow your gaff. Or your head off. Poker games abound and one entire book (Stone Cold) is devoted entirely to it—and it's for teens.

This is a good time to point out that Hautman's young adult novels (“YA” books in publishing slang) are worth reading, even if you're a jaded adult. In these books teens get a hell of a lot more credit for smarts than they're likely to get from the “real” world of adult authority. Catcher In The Rye becomes Catch ‘Em In The Lie.

So how do you mismanage risk in the world according to Hautman? By failing to read the signs. By letting trust cannibalize skepticism. A skinhead in The Mortal Nuts tattoos “fuck me” on his forehead, then carelessly risks going to prison. Hyatt Hilton in Ring Game fills Evian bottles with tap water and sells it as the real stuff. It's hard to find any character in Hautman's oeuvre who isn't laboring under—or hustling—some hilarious delusion. And since Hautman's world of clashing chimeras is so believable, it's only logical to ask, how real is the real world? What bill of goods will I buy this week? If there's a “message” in the writing of Pete Hautman, it's that it is better to ask these questions before—rather than after—the shit hits the fan.

I did a little detective work myself and caught up with Herr Hautman just as he and Mary Logue were packing to split Tucson for Stockholm. As in Wisconsin.

With the terminal caution of a dry gulch gambler, Hautman speaks very carefully and at first his voice was so cautiously low that I thought we were disconnected. As we spoke over the course of the next couple of weeks, I noticed he tends to clear his throat just before clarifying a point, and if explaining something gloriously risk free, he takes a nice deep breath and lets his words surf with alacrity on the expelled air. But if he hazards a comment that involves the risk of future uncertainty, then his voice may drop to the threshold of no voice at all. The second time I got him on the phone, after the warm howdy's, he was happy to tell me about an event already safely in the past:

PH: I just got back from the world series of poker in Las Vegas. That's the $10,000 buy in, no limit, hold 'em event. This year they had a record 613 entries. Multiply that times $10,000 and it will give you an idea of the prize money—$6.3 million. Ever play casino poker?

YF: It's something I never took up.

PH: It's pretty dramatic. There are some real characters. You get everything from the people in three-piece suits to those who look like they crawled out from under a bridge. A little bit more of the latter. I don't know where these people get all their money. The players a lot of times use a chip protector. When you get your two cards you set something on top of it just to make sure the dealer doesn't accidentally scoop them in. People have medallions, lucky coins, little statuettes, something like that. Lyle Berman had a hundred-ounce bar of gold, $20,000. It was really a trip. I'm going to go back next year and [drops voice very low] do some research on some writing.

YF: People who play high stakes chess often look at life as one big chess game. Is life for you one big poker game?

PH: Yes, very much so. Chess people are very—not to take anything away from them— limited in the way they view life because of the [nature of the] chess game [itself]. So you get people like Bobby Fisher. Chess is pure strategy and the player who plays the best game always wins. Poker resembles life more closely in that there's an element of luck that is probably underestimated by most professional card players. In life you can plan everything perfect and a tire blows on the way to the big meeting, or a meteor falls out of the sky and penetrates your cranium. Poker is a lot more like that. In the end, in this tournament, there's going to be nine people at the final table. They're all going to be very skillful, knowledgeable, poker players. But they won't necessarily be the best. The guy who was the favorite to win the tournament got knocked out two hours in. Unbelievable things happen. I saw 4 threes get beat by 4 nines. I saw a hand in which a kings over nines full house and a jacks over nines full house both got beaten by a straight flush. I'm going back next year. I did play in the Press Event, which was for people in the media. Free entry and $5,000 to your favorite charity. I did not do well. But it paid for the trip.

YF: How often do you play?

PH: I play casinos usually two nights a week and then in a private game the other night.

YF: Would you consider yourself a conservative player?

PH: Not as conservative as I should be. I aspire to greater things than conservatism. At high stakes nothing is boring. I'm working on another book right now [Doohickey] that is almost entirely set in a casino. The main character is a prop player. In casino type card rooms, one of the challenges the management has is to keep the games full. Because if there aren't enough players, people want to leave. So casinos employ prop players. They are people who are paid between 100 and 200 dollars a day. They work 40 hours a week, 8 hour shifts, they get the health plan and everything else. Their job is to play cards with their own money. They go to whatever table the management tells them to play. Almost all casinos in California and Arizona employ 3 or 4 or 5 props to keep the games going.

When I turned to the topic of his fiction, he spoke slower and more carefully because that's an ongoing wager between his mind and yours. At the rate of 3 pages a day, he told me, everything he's written, from skinhead melodramas to kiddy books on whales, has been a winner.

YF: How do you get your material for all these goofball characters, do you hang around in sleazy bars, cultivate scumbags? And how do stay out of trouble and keep from being in the wrong place at the wrong time?

PH: [after laughter subsides] They're all based on people, but they also come out of thin air. I'm from the school that figures my first and most important editor is my selective memory. I trust myself to forget what isn't interesting and then I make the assumption that what I'm remembering might be. There are people I meet on the street, in a bar, at a store, buy a newspaper from, play cards with, whatever. Sometimes a face will trigger this cascade of a presumed life story.

As an inside joke, Hautman admits to basing some of his characters on real people he knows, but that's one of his shorter answers. When I asked the correct spelling of Lyle (“Gold Bar”) Berman's name, he was concerned about what I'd say about him. In Short Money, he told me, the foul-mouthed old lady who was matriarch of a criminal family was “my sweet old grandmother.” I asked if his other characters were composites of real people.

PH: The character Axel [in The Mortal Nuts]. He's based on a real guy. He's very close to a guy I worked for at the State Fair years ago [at the sliced pineapple concession]. He was a lech and an ogre. How did he get to be this nasty tempered old man who's selling tacos at county fairs for a living? I did some research and found out a little more about the actual guy. The more I learned, and the more I made up, the more I liked him. I ended up making the old man the protagonist and the young man turned out to be a psychopathic killer.

YF: Do people ever recognize themselves in your books?

PH: [whips back] But they're wrong! [laughs] I used to play poker with a guy named Bobick. I met him about 1994, a year after Drawing Dead came out. In Drawing Dead there's a real estate agent named Jimbo Bobick. Well, Bobick is absolutely convinced I based this character on him. And to anyone who will listen, he'll tell them, “this character is based on me!” It doesn't matter that the book was written before I met him.

Some people would maintain that the Three Stooges say all there is to say about male endeavor. Always aiming high and always screwing up. There's little in Hautman's books to contradict that. Even his “heroes” don't so much win as sequester their losses. In nearly every Hautman tale there's the Big Cigars, people you're supposed to respect by virtue of their status. Doctors, lawyers, money managers, bankers, cops, the clergy. But as the story unfolds you realize their status turns out to be all smoke. At one point a typical Hautman philosophaster asserts, “horses may be the true rulers of the planet.” Or jackasses.

People fare no better in the relationship game. You'll find no one in Hautman's stories you'd want to trade places with. Psychotic boyfriends, conniving husbands and violent fathers. Gold bricking females. Even the Crow/Dobrowski pair in Hautman's early work, for all their mutual respect, aren't exactly in the red zone on the passion meter. Dobrowski tells Crow he “has the emotional depth of a flounder.” If you didn't know better, you might think she was describing the author who created her. But if you believe that, then you've been had. In his decade-plus real life collaboration with Mary Logue, in business and in life, things are flush there too, although she has openly wondered where he gets some of his material.

PH: We show each other work when we're stuck or uncertain about whether something is working. She tends to bring out the relationship aspect of what I'm writing. Whereas I'm thinking about what's going to happen next, she's thinking about how these characters are feeling about each other. It's really made my work more satisfying to write and for readers too. It's been a tremendous advantage for me to have Mary's input available to me.

YF: Didn't you both collaborate on a story that won a contest?

PH: [laughs] Mary Logue and I went to the Edgar Awards Banquet in the early '90s. There was a company there called Abelour Skotch. They put a bottle of scotch on every table and the rules of this contest [which were] to write a 2,500 word short story set in Scotland that incorporated ten phrases they provided. Mary would say it's got to have a love interest. I said the distiller had to be some kind of mechanical male thing. [laughs] We almost didn't make the deadline because we couldn't come up with an ending for the story. It was never published. The prize was a trip to Scotland, which we did not take. We took the money and went to Paris. [Later] Mary and I went to this convention of mystery readers. There's usually 300 to 400 authors there and 3 or 4 thousand people. I called up Abelour [Scotch Co.] and said hey, you've got a real opportunity. Since I won this contest and I'll be selling my books down here, why don't you send us a couple cases of Scotch? So they did. When I had my signing I got the hotel to send a bartender down. He was pouring $30 a bottle single malt scotch for anybody who wanted it. We didn't even go through a bottle! There were other people signing their books like Tony Hillerman, Michael Connelly, or better known writers, and that's where all the people were. So I'm sitting all by myself with this stack of books and $800 worth of scotch whiskey I couldn't give away. I probably shouldn't tell stories like that because someone might write about it in Your Flesh.

In Hautman's cradle-to-grave approach to fiction, he has made a rep for himself among kids. His teen-age protagonists gamble, swear, break the law, and scheme behind their parent's back. I figure somewhere in America some hopped up Catholic is crucifying a school librarian for carrying Stone Cold, where the hypocritical Father O'Gara is mocked by the young poker playing protagonist. Fundamentalist Christians may be calling a meeting at a principal's office this very moment over Hole in the Sky, where the murderous Kinka cult, “mindless and swaying,” bear too close a resemblance for comfort. On top of that, Hautman seems to be boosting Hopi paganism.

I called 10 high school librarians at random across the Midwest. Eight of them had never heard of Hautman, but two of them carried Stone Cold, although they had never read it. One librarian said they bought their fiction from a “Recommended List” in a school library publication. Another librarian said he sometimes gets complaints from parents about library books, but none on Hautman so far. I asked Hautman about his “pushing the envelop” with kids who find it much easier, as he told me, “to suspend disbelief and go wherever the author wants to take them.”

PH: I was talking to my young adult editor at Simon & Schuster and he had sent me a book by Ellen Wittlinger called Hard Love, which was a lesbian love story. A few places in the book she used the word “fuck.” In YA fiction you don't see that a lot. I said, David, doesn't that cost you sales, because almost all YA fiction is sold to school libraries? He said that's true, but those are people who wouldn't buy books about lesbians anyway. People are pushing the envelope so to speak, but no more so than when Huckleberry Finn was written. I've talked to several educators at different times who have some concerns about some of the things in my books.

YF: Like what, for example?

PH: In Mr. Was the boy falls in love with his grandmother and ends up living with her, which I thought was a very innocent sort of thing. The card playing one [Stone Cold], some people see that it glorifies poker because the kid ends up winning everything in the end. But by far the majority of people see it the other way—that this kid's gotten everything that he wants, but lost everything that's important. I've actually thought about doing a sequel to it as an adult novel. [voice lowers] In the rematch he's going to be older. As an older protagonist I can sell it as an adult book.

YF: It's an interesting concept to have a character appear in a children's book then reappear in a hard-core adult book. Has that ever been done?

PH: The closest thing I can think of is Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Tom Sawyer is very simple and very short and very sweet. You read Huckleberry Finn and it's pretty dark and complex.

YF: I've noticed that lawyers come off as pretty sleazy characters in your books. Your father was a lawyer. What does he think about those characters?

PH: My father only practiced law for about 5 years and didn't like it. He said you always find yourself taking the side of someone whose ethics are questionable. He wasn't the kind of guy who could compartmentalize to the extent of defending someone whose position might be legally defensible but ethically reprehensible. It was very difficult for him. He had a couple of clients that were having some tax fraud problems. He liked that kind of work because these guys were out and out crooks and they made no bones about it. As long as there was no hypocrisy he didn't have a problem. [laughs] When they died—[pointing out very carefully] from medical conditions, not from anything worse than that—he and his law partner bought their trailer rental business.

How close his fiction is based on real events is a hole card he's covering with 20 ounces of golden silence. But if The Mortal Nuts reflects his experience as a carnival food vendor, then the genre-busting Rag Man, due for October release, bears an uncanny resemblance to an actual Hautman business venture.

YF: What's the most wacko business scheme you've ever had?

PH: In real life? Hmm. I had a brush with sudden wealth several years ago. You remember when every kid in the United States was wearing painter hats? Early 1980s? I was behind the painter cap craze. We started this thing literally in my friend's parent's basement. Within 3 years we had over $7 million in sales. One year later we were bankrupt. I wished we'd have given ourselves more salary...I had an idea for a wind-up flashlight, but that didn't go very far. Doesn't it make sense? A little generator, you wind it up and then as it unwinds it generates power and illuminates!

Sort of like Hautman himself.

Here's the hand we've dealt you. Your options are: go to the nearest bookstore and start with Stone Cold and Rag Man, then read your way in deeper.

Or this— do whatever you have to do to get $10,000 and invest it with full confidence in The Hautman Wind-up Flashlight Co. Send cash only to Pete Hautman, c/o Your Flesh. We'll make you rich. Be sure the envelope is tightly sealed.

• • •

This feature article was originally published in Your Flesh #46

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