In Positively Fifth Street, James McManus turned a week at the World Series of Poker into a rambunctious existential exploration of greed and family, with an epically seedy murder tossed in. His new book, Physical: An American Checkup, takes an equally gonzo approach to the world of medicine, as an $8,484.25 “executive checkup” at the Mayo Clinic leads him to think about both his own mortality and the state of health care in America. He spoke with David Amsden.
One of the book’s themes is your animosity toward President Bush’s policy on stem-cell research—in part because your daughter Bridget has diabetes. Did writing this make you political?
Well, my politics had no place in the poker book. But, yes, as a father of a child who needs stem-cell research to move forward, I’m coming at this not as a journalist but as a parent. You can know that nothing’s being done to protect the environment, but when it’s your child, it raises your political temperature. You get really pissed.
The doctors end up telling you to eat healthier, drink less, and stop smoking if you want to see your youngest kids grow up. Have you been following their advice?
The bottom line is, most things that are fun for me make my life span shorter. But I quit smoking, for real—that’s been the big thing. And I’ve moderated the booze to wine only, more or less. But food? My wife’s a pretty serious chef, so that can be tough.
You devote ample space in the book to praising Dr. Woo Suk Hwang, the researcher who’s recently been accused of fraud.
Yeah, the timing on this one is spectacularly bad, it’s true. But forget about what it does to the book—I mean, I can always write an afterword for the paperback. The issue is the disservice done to millions of patients. I’ll tell you this, though: It’s another reason I’m looking forward to writing more fiction.
Speaking of that, I’m wondering how much the James McManus on the page resembles the one in life.
There’s been a lot of talk about that subject lately. He’s a character based on me. I try to give the illusion that I’m telling everything, because the reader wants to feel like that’s what you’re doing. But am I? Not all, of course. Let’s say you’re writing about your sex life with your wife—well, you can’t say everything. And most likely you’re just not skilled enough to get it on the page. You need to have the freedom to tweak things. If I’m talking with you and you’re wearing a blue shirt, but I say it’s green for metaphoric reasons, that, I think, is okay. But if you’re lying about what a badass you are to make your recovery seem more poignant and tear-jerking, that’s crossing a line.
Will we see another book about yourself?
Oh, no. I’m tired of it now. I’m working on a history of poker—a straight narrative, David McCullough–style—as well as a novel about poker and Las Vegas in the age of terrorism. I feel really, really relieved not to be revealing every goddamn thing about my cold, my colon, and my penis. And I’m sure the world agrees.
Physical: An American Checkup
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.