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The Wild Card: A Novel

The Wild Card: A Novel

4.0 1
by Mark Joseph

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Four grown men, friends since childhood-a man of though, a man of leisure, an outlaw, and a cop-reunite in San Francisco for a weekend-long game of cards in the Palace Hotel's Enrico Caruso Suite. Every year they do this. It gives them a chance to catch up, to renew their friendships, to relive their glory days. To smoke, drink, laugh, and lose themselves and their


Four grown men, friends since childhood-a man of though, a man of leisure, an outlaw, and a cop-reunite in San Francisco for a weekend-long game of cards in the Palace Hotel's Enrico Caruso Suite. Every year they do this. It gives them a chance to catch up, to renew their friendships, to relive their glory days. To smoke, drink, laugh, and lose themselves and their cares for a couple of days. It also allows them to reaffirm, by unspoken consent, that the deadly secret they share has remained safe for another year.

Thirty years earlier, there were five friends. Just out of high school, preparing for college, optimistic and energetic, they took a boat trip up a river. Then an outburst of drunken teenage savagery at a place called Shanghai Bend left four boys scrambling to cover their tracks. And a fifth, Bobby McCorkle, disappeared...

For thirty years Bobby drifted aimlessly: through the firefights of Vietnam, across the United States and back a hundred times, and into every numbed recess of his conscience that heroin and alcohol could take him. He survived by his wits, but he lived by his trade: he became a gambler.

In 1995 construction crews dig up a skeleton at Shanghai Bend. Now McCorkle must rejoin his old pals at the card table and confront their secret together. What does each man bring? How much does each know? And how far will each go to protect the secret? The game begins, the stakes go up. Will they be exposed? Will their lives be ruined? Bluff. Double bluff. Call. Before the weekend is over, these five men will find themselves playing for their lives.

Editorial Reviews

Martin Hegwood
The Wild Card is like The Big Chill with a harder edge to it. I couldn't wait to see what came up in the last chapter when Mark Joseph turned over his hole card.
Publishers Weekly
"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 clich?s and sloppy constructions abound. Though Joseph clearly knows poker, his book has as many weak joists as a house of cards. (Aug.) Forecast: Fold. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Hard-bitten, chain-smoking, sweat-trickling poker players resolve their guilt about a 30-year-old murder like men-at the poker table, where jokers are wild and literary subtlety vanishes quicker than a cigarette docked untouched at the ashtray. Five boyhood friends who dub themselves The Royal Flush (for the tattoos they wear on their upper arms) gather for a big showdown game in San Francisco. Four of them have played there for 30 years, but this time, Bobby is coming too. When they were teenagers, Bobby was the good-looking, smart, college-bound standout . . . until the boys took a boat up a river for some gambling and drinking just after high school graduation in 1963. At a gas stop along the way, they met Sally, a teenaged Madonna and killer cardplayer who hitched a ride with the hormonal youths. Bobby, the one who didn't want her along, was the one she couldn't resist, and when they disappeared into the woods for some erotic gymnastics his drunken, jealous buddies followed. While Bobby slept off the great sex, Sally wound up dead after some roughhousing got out of hand. Bobby disappeared across the river, and doesn't reappear until the poker night 30 years later, when the four summon Bobby to square their consciences. Of course, he's now a professional cardplayer, and after his former pals attempt to buy his silence he vengefully cleans them out of their money, homes, possessions, and businesses. Having introduced his friends to the prospect of traumatic, Sally-like loss, will Bobby give everything back? Lots of monosyllabic checking and folding, but not much genuine tension here. Readers with some knowledge of poker and its canny ways may appreciate Joseph's (Deadline Y2K, 1999,etc.) putative drama more fully.
From the Publisher
"The ultimate high-stakes novel. A masterful blend of terror and suspense." —Howard Kaminsky, author of Talent, The Seventh Child, The Glow, and The Twelve

"The best submarine tale since The Hunt for Red October. Mark Joseph gets it right." —Stephen Coonts on Typhoon

"Explosive, gripping, relentless edge-of-the-seat suspense; absolutely authentic." —Gerald A. Browne, author of 19 Purchase Street on To Kill the Potemkin

"Havoc worthy of a Godzilla film...briskly told." —Kirkus Reviews

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St. Martin's Press
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The Wild Card
19951Four miles below Marysville and Yuba City, twin Sacramento Valley towns that face one another across the Feather River, the stream swings gracefully around Shanghai Bend, a broad, sweeping curve whose mineral deposits have attracted miners since the Gold Rush. At the mouth of the bend an unnatural cataract of strange, pitted rocks forms a cascade of shallow waterfalls that drops the river eight feet in a hundred yards. Created by powerful dredges and pumps during the heyday of hydraulic mining in the early twentieth century, the falls at Shanghai Bend prohibit the passage of any craft. The current is swift, the bottom slick and treacherous, and kayakers and canoeists portage their boats around the falls just as miners carried their boats around churning machinery in 1903.Subject to floods like all rivers in the valley, the Feather has been plugged by dams, constricted by levees and drained for agriculture, yet none of these attempts to tinker with nature has prevented the river from overflowing its banks with alarming regularity. The river is particularly inclined to flood at Shanghai Bend, and every few years the Feather deposits tons of mud and squirming steelhead into the living rooms of a subdivision called Shanghai Bend Meadows.In 1995 the valley was booming, jobs were being created overnight, and savvy developers promoted nonstop construction of new housing. Thus one morning in late May a backhoe operator began digging a trench between Shanghai Bend Meadows and the east levee. Every year the Feather altered its course, washing out old levees and creating new islands while reducing others to sandbars. The operator was digging in a spot that once had been an island but now was destined to become the backyard of a new house.In May temperatures in the valley can soar into the nineties, andthe operator liked to work fast before the day became unbearably hot. By ten o'clock, the trench was twenty feet long, three feet wide, and four feet deep when she uncovered a human skeleton.The outline of a rib cage was visible, and two ribs had been smashed by the action of the steel backhoe. Having worked along the river for many years, the operator knew the riverbed was a treasure-trove of archeology. Neither shocked nor horrified, her first thought was that she'd uncovered a Native American burial site, common in the region. That ticked her off because archeologists would be called in, construction delayed, and her paycheck would shrink while the site was excavated. She sat for ten minutes under her hardhat, smoking a cigarette, trying to talk herself into making the bones disappear. Two or three swipes with the backhoe and the lot of reddish-brown calcium would be over the levee and into the river. But the operator was an honest sort, and after thinking it through she decided to do the right thing. She called the foreman who called the developer who called the sheriff who came straight away, took one quick look and called the Yuba County medical examiner.When the medical examiner arrived, the operator, sheriff, three deputies, and a half dozen construction workers were standing around, looking into the hole as though some great truth were to be discovered there. To the medical examiner, a skilled pathologist, truth was a matter of common sense and forensic science. He jumped into the hole with a small case of tools and a camera, snapped a photo, pulled on a pair of rubber gloves and knelt over the protruding bones with a whisk broom. While carefully brushing dirt from the rib cage, he addressed his attentive audience."This could be an Indian site," he said laconically, pausing to take more pictures. "Or perhaps a miner who died during the Gold Rush. On the other hand, this might be a godforsaken Okie who came to California to escape the Dust Bowl in Nineteen and Thirty-six and died in the promised land."Removing soil adjacent to the ribs, he uncovered a fractured cranium and mandible. He photographed the skull, moving in close to capture the small but obvious indentation just above the right temple.Then he exchanged the whisk broom for a smaller brush and delicately removed chunks of clay from the jawbone."But it isn't," he declared."What makes you say that?" the sheriff asked."Silver fillings. Relatively modern dental work.""Homicide?""We have a long way to go, Sheriff, but the skull is cracked.""Male? Female?""Don't know yet, but we will. I'm guessing female.""How long has this body been in the ground?""Don't know that either, but more than fifteen years and less than fifty. That's an educated guess. An artifact would help--clothing, a button, a zipper."By now it was midday and getting hotter. Sweating, the medical examiner made exploratory stabs with a small spade around the bones and after ten minutes uncovered the only piece of evidence that would ever be found at the site: a single, plastic-coated Bicycle brand playing card, the queen of hearts.THE WILD CARD. Copyright © 2001 by Mark Joseph. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Meet the Author

Mark Joseph is the author of the New York Times bestseller To Kill the Potemkin and the hit thrillers Typhoon and Deadline Y2K. He learned to play poker at the age of eight and has played in the same game for thirty-five years. He lives in San Francisco and is currently writing another thriller set in the City by the Bay.

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