Gambling Brothers

Book Review by Betsy Berry:


I know a thing or two about addiction myself. Several years ago I walked through the door of an Austin pool hall to begin research for a screenplay and in a sense I’ve never walked out. So far I’m not a gambler, as in “action player … money player … hustler.” So far. But because I’ve put in some hours, become a pretty fair player, the opportunity is there. I know the rhetoric of the shooter, and use it. The difference between me and the Barthelme brothers, the memoirists of Double Down, is a simple matter of money. That is, it takes money to win money, so you’ve got to have some to put down on the table. For the gambler — in actuality or imagination, no matter what the game — the obsession that becomes the addiction follows a predictable, time-honored pattern.

Recently, in the small world sweepstakes, I met a waitress in one of the billiards parlors I frequent who had come to Austin from a job as a dealer at the Grand Casino in Gulfport, Mississippi. The Grand is one of the gambling “boats” anchored just offshore so as to make gambling legal, suggesting a pirate’s venture under a Puritan eye, conducted at sea, at a distance from good Godfearing people who claim their land in His name. On board The Grand, floating in brackish brown water you “wouldn’t want to fall into,” Rick and Steve Barthelme sailed, running up their tattered little flag and going nowhere.

“Sure I know those guys,” the waitress said, appraising the picture of the brothers on the dust cover of Double Down, where they look about as much like brothers as any two random guys you’d snap on the street. “Professors, you say? Indicted? Didn’t hear anything about that…. Yeah, yeah. Those guys.” She jabbed her finger at the photograph. “Who’da known they were brothers?” she said, but in an offhand way that could mean she’d dealt them hundreds of blackjack hands or that she’d never seen them before in her life. I chose to believe she had faced the brothers across that semi-circle of bright green felt, watched the hypnotic gazes of these particular gamblers on their cards. Reading their story of loss and then meeting someone who might have played a role in it brought them into my world, as if we shared this dealer (even if now she was wearing a different hat) at our separate night haunts. I felt affectionate towards them, protective almost, as I suspect other readers will — surely a major attraction of this memoir. “What are those Barthelme brothers up to?” my husband would ask, as I was reading.

The draw for parents is free-floating chance, the roll of the dice or spin of the card that is the angel and devil of gambling. Here the brothers were lucky. The Barthelmes had grown up feeling like golden kids; theirs was almost the golden family. They recall often that they loved their Mother best, and throughout the narrative they distinguish her as Mother with a capital “M.” (Otherwise curiously unnamed in the memoir, she was Helen, née Bechtold. Likewise Donald Sr., whose name we know only because the brothers refer to their eldest sibling as “Don Jr.,” is represented only as “Father.”) She was a strong, handsome woman — confirmed here by family photos — and the brothers describe her in loving terms. She was bright, witty, generous, sensitive, kind, the mother one would order up. Their much older brother (of four boys and a girl) was Donald, famous in the literary world as a glittering stylist and post-modern innovator. The Father, Donald Sr., born in Galveston and educated at the University of Pennsylvania, was a brilliant modern architect who designed the Hall of State building for the 1940 Texas State Fair. But somehow his career never matched his conception of what it should have been. (He designed an avant-garde family home in Houston in 1939, where the boys grew up. Strikingly modern for decades to come, it was always undergoing major renovations and endless tinkering.)

The descriptions of their father, which crop up frequently and in circular fashion, are tightly packed, and the brothers credit both parents for the good and bad things they learned as boys about what they would later term the “sad vacancy of living” long before that vacancy had been carved out. Their father had an “anarchic arrogance” which he passed on to Rick and Steve, and which probably rendered them helpless to choose a career outside the Academy. Above all he taught them to feel without the crass business of display:

He tried to allow for the disorder that emotions introduced into every situation, but his allegiance was to thinking, so frequently when Father started thinking, someone’s feelings got flattened.

“In our father’s view,” they observe, “the great seething life of feelings could be a damn nuisance.” That was pater Barthelme’s style and unsurprisingly, say the brothers, it became “part of ours, a part that sometimes caused problems because the skepticism made it hard to talk to people who believed stuff.” These passages are intended to explain rather than to blame, as revealed in one of their memorably crafted summary descriptions of the whole family:

[Father] and Mother made of the family and our early lives a lovely old-fashioned movie with snappy dialogue and surprising developments, high drama and low comedy, heroes and villains, wit and beauty and regret. Pretty much everything since then has been anticlimax.

But Double Down is not meant as a vehicle for pop-psychology deconstruction, parent-child behavioral study, or theory-mongering. It is about gambling, about the brothers’ blackjack obsession — “a common card” between them — and their guilt-laden loss of a quarter of a million dollars in a two-year span, much of it from their father’s inheritance. The brothers, who teach creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, write brilliantly of their casino nights and less so of their academic days. There is something about la vie academe that brings them down, that makes those sections seem lifeless by comparison, a corduroy jacket with patches contrasted with the kitsch of casino chic. With stylistic verve, they switch seamlessly from third to first person, and everywhere in the gambling sequences is an urgency to the prose, a sense of immediate need. Here is a typical rendition of the decision to head into the night seventy miles south to where the boats bob at anchor, waiting:

He picks up the phone and calls his friend Mary Robison, a gambling buddy and a colleague at the university.

“We’re thinking of going to the coast,” he says.

“We shouldn’t,” Mary says.

“Yeah, I know,” he says. “But we are. I’m calling Steve back. We’re leaving right away. You want to go?”

“I’ll take my car.”

At first, of course, they won. They learn that this is typical gambler-casino practice: “You win something sizeable, and thereafter gambling takes up residence in your imagination. You remember the visit. It’s a key to the business — the first time you walk away with the casino’s money.” Later the high becomes something else, something they describe as “thrall”: “Something new had come into our otherwise quiet lives. Neither of us had any idea how much those first jackpots would eventually cost.” Following the deaths of their mother and father in fairly quick succession, they were left on their own and feeling hopelessly ill-prepared. They had spouses but no children to ease a cold-turkey withdrawal from blood family. They began to gamble with a kind of frenzy that knew no reason, their obsession with detail and nuance running apace:

You’ve made a big bet, you’re holding an eighteen and the dealer is showing an eight, and you think you’ve pushed, you’re safe. Then you think, Unless she has an ace. No sooner have you had the second thought than you know she has the ace. You wish she didn’t, but you know she does. And when she flips her down card there it is, the ace. And you lose again. Then you think that you caused her to have the ace by thinking it.

If you look fairly and honestly, you can see the allure, the pull. For all their worth, the brothers’ day jobs are flat and two-dimensional. Naturally they would stroll over to the dicier side of the street. There waited Lady Luck, the Mistress of the Bipolar, whom gamblers love and loathe a hundred times in the short flash of an hour. The whole idea of figuring out luck had a stranglehold on the brothers, and for them the way to beat the odds involved nothing detached and mathematical but sheer will: a low-level sense of entitlement they had internalized as children. They subscribed to two principles: the power of “words, adroitly deployed” and the fact that, like their father, they possessed an understanding of how things worked in the world and thus could “tame them.”

Though the brothers insist the gambling was less about money than about the thrill of chance, the goal was still to wrestle the casino to the ground, and the way to do that was to take home some of its money. They believed they could win, believed it with a pure, dogged determination. By their candid admission, they were out of their minds — endearingly so. They found in the casino much beyond the action — that key word in the rhetoric of gambling. They found people they likened to a surreal substitute for family, comrades without complications, pit bosses and dealers the brothers liken to fast-food workers, whom they believe to possess the same respect and loyalty for the casino’s money as McDonald’s employees might feel towards Ray Kroc. The difference here — with the dealers in particular — is that they are allowed to demonstrate an individual sense of style hard to find in the world of more prosaic jobs.

“It was not that we liked our fellow gamblers, the pit and floor people, the cocktail waitresses,” they write. “It was more that we loved them, at a respectable distance, the same distance at which one loves characters in books or on television shows.” It is an attraction at once far away and up close: “One forms brief but intense relationships with utter strangers while gambling together, which is as intoxicating and intimate as drinking together, although usually less messy.”

Less messy, perhaps. Ultimately, their good-natured, brother-bonding gambling (Rick preferred cards; Steve, the slots), that easy-going camaraderie with casino workers, gets them into trouble of the federal kind. But that’s a hand I’m not going to show. To read the book is to believe they are innocent. What Rick and Steve Barthelme are guilty of is naïveté, a Gatsby-like belief in the Shining American Lie that transcendence is for the taking. In a royal flush on a poker machine, Rick saw perfection, something none of his academic colleagues believed in. As gamblers the brothers fell for the promise and redemption of chance and change. “This was their fool’s secret,” they tell us, observing themselves with perspective, “one they shared with drunks, artists, and children, all of whom they resembled.” For the brothers, perched at a blackjack table next to a guy from Boston with a nail bent through his earlobe who is telling jokes from a cheesy lounge act, “it’s a battle to believe that life is a dreary chore.”

Their guilt resided in the six figures of the loss column, money (their own and that inherited from their cherished mother and father) which they threw into the Grand’s gullet first gradually and then suddenly. Besides their love of the night, of the neon and the noise, they embraced the idea of besting the beast of money. All his life their father applied himself to that principle, thinking “anyone could make a rich and happy life” while “overlooking the fact that it hadn’t worked so well for him.” His sons, with the hard edge of realism, saw financial solvency, particularly gained the old-fashioned way, as “the tyrant that has been pushing you around your whole life.”

In the end, though, perhaps it is just spilt money. “Double down,” a gambling call that could equally apply to the fate of the brothers, is the phoenix rising, in equal parts about their own beautiful failure to be more than human, and a loving tribute to their parents, whom they have come to see as beautifully flawed as well. Gamblers like to talk, the brothers point out, and so the telling of their story seems a natural. They are writers whose research was conducted at a big cost, but the lessons learned are probably invaluable.

“Winning is better than losing,” they tell us simply, “but neither one is the goal of gambling, which is playing. Losing never feels like the worst part of gambling. Quitting often does.” Readers should be glad that the brothers didn’t fold and that, instead, they turned loss into art.

Austin writer Betsy Berry is at work on a novel set in France, a project which requires many hours of research in Texas pool halls.