Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss

Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss

by Frederick Barthelme, Steven Barthelme

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"So each night begins. One of us picks up the other and we drive into the Mississippi darkness, headed for a place where everything is different." This first nonfiction book by Frederick Barthelme, author of BOB THE GAMBLER, and his brother and colleague Steven is both a story of family feeling and a testimony to the risky allure of casinos. Within a year and a half, the authors had lost both of their parents, less than a decade after their brother Donald died. Their exacting father had been a prominent modernist architect in Houston; their mother, the architect of this family of seven, which she "invented, shaped, guided, and protected." "We were on our own in a remarkable new way," the Barthelmes write, "and we were not ready." What followed was a several-year escapade during which the two brothers lost close to a quarter million dollars in the gambling boats off the Mississippi coast. They played to enter that addictive land of possibility. Then, in a bizarre twist, they were charged with violating state gambling laws, fingerprinted, and thrown into the surreal world of felony prosecution. For two years these widely publicized charges hung over their heads, shadowing their every step, until, in August of 1999, the charges were finally dismissed. DOUBLE DOWN is the sometimes wryly told, often heartbreaking story of how Frederick and Steven Barthelme got into this predicament. It is also a reflection on the pull and power of illusions, the way they work on us when we are not careful.

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  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547959351

  • ISBN-10: 0547959354

  • Pages: 208

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 05/21/2001

  • Carton Quantity: 1

F
Author

Frederick Barthelme

Frederick Barthelme is the author of eleven books, including BOB THE GAMBLER and THE PAINTED DESERT. He directs the writing program at the University of Southern Mississippi and edits the literary journal Mississippi Review. Mr. Barthelme lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
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S
Author

Steven Barthelme

Steven Barthelme teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is the author of a story collection, AND HE TELLS THE LITTLE HORSE THE WHOLE STORY, and of award-winning essays. 
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  • reviews

    "For the Barthelmes [Double Down] suggests the dual downward spiral they suffered in losing so much money and their parents in a short span of time. They relate both stories in a style so seamless that it's hard to tell you are reading a collaboration." The New York Times

    "The Barthelmes recount in vivid detail and with good psychological insight the trauma of coping with that dual loss." The Washington Post

    "Double Down is an astounding book--lucid and hypnotic. I read it as if witnessing a not-so-small miracle in which a fall from grace is inverted, mid-air, and turned into a fall toward grace. It is clean and crisp and important." -- Rick Bass

    "Anyone who buys into the insane conclusion that casino gambling is good for a community should read this book. Double Down is one of the best firsthand accounts ever written about organized gambling. Like Goodman Brown, taking a walk with a hooded stranger into the darkness of the New England woods, the Barthelme brothers suddenly find themselves inside the maw of the monster. The compulsion to control, to intuit the future, to be painted by magic, could not be better or more accurately described." -- James Lee Burke, author of Burning Angel and Cadillac Jukebox)

    "Whoever invented gambling knew something about human nature the rest of us have to keep rediscovering. Double Down is a gripping read." --Larry Brown

    "Frederick and Steven Barthelme have written one of the great books on gambling--a memoir of guilt, frustration, the wickedness of American justice, and, above all, the hair-raising rush of the action." --Thom Jones

    "I really enjoyed Double Down--I loved going along vicariously into the world of casinos. The Barthelme brothers write in a remarkably unified voice, and I was especially intrigued and moved by their analysis of themselves as grown-up children because they are childless. It's a very compelling narrative." --Bobbie Ann Mason

    "'Double Down' is a good gambling story, maybe worth every penny the Barthelmes lost." - reviewed by Ann Fabian The Chicago Tribune

    "The tale they have to tell is far more richly complicated--and haunting--than any their lawyer could present...By turns dazzingly canny and achingly abject, the Barthelmes, who write in a single voice, lure the reader into the intimacy of their self-deception." Publishers Weekly, Starred

    "DOUBLE DOWN...is an exquisitely crafted memoir...It is distinguished from the raft of recent addiction tales not just by the quality of its prose but also by a bizarre turn that landed the brothers in the headlines and in the maw of the Mississippi judicial system." The Wall Street Journal

    "A work of high art; enthusiastically recommended." -- Marty Soven Library Journal

    "Their redemption is the book itself, in which shell shock is transfigured by literary grace." --David Gates Newsweek

    "This is a book about gambling, written in tandem by the Barthelme brothers, Frederick and Steven, academics and writers, telling of actual events. It also, on the way, talks perceptively and sometimes brilliantly of life, death, family, hope and despair, and money as an expression of these things. It is extremely melancholy and very, very disturbing. What the Barthelme brothers do in excess, in casinos, we all do a little in our daily lives, testing fate, pushing luck: falling in love with the wrong person, walking out of a job, in denial of reality. Bound to lose, but what the hell? And all somehow linked to the necessary defiance of death." -- Fay Weldon Observer

    "'Gambling is of course a very expensive way to beat reason,' write Frederick and Steven Barthelme in DOUBLE DOWN, their superb (and horrifying) memoir of a betting spree. "You can get pretty much the same thing by staying awake for a night and day." Better they should have stayed awake for a night and day, and skipped the casinos. Their bad run lasted two years and resulted in losses greater than a quarter of a million dollars... this is no mere cautionary tale. It's a brutally candid, unflattering self-portrait if two successful middle-aged men (Rick, 55, has published 11 books of fiction, including -- ironically enough -- BOB THE GAMBLER, and Steve, 52, published a well-reviewed collection of short stories, AND HE TELLS THE LITTLE HORSE THE WHOLE STORY, in 1987) who managed, somehow to sail through their adulthood behaving as "overage children." Driving to casinos, we're told, they felt like "kids again, making a fort or throwing a football around in the backyard, building something in the bedroom with Lincoln Logs." DOUBLE DOWN is also an unsentimental, even edgy meditation on the loss of one's parents and the often crazy-making trauma of being orphaned in midlife. After both their mother and father died within a period of 18 months, the brothers Barthelme were suddenly on their own "in a remarkable new way, and we were not ready." But to their credit, they blame no one but themselves for their ill-preparedness. Astoundedd-though not parttttticularly abashed-by their disastrous gambling careers, they nevertheless take full responsibility for it and accept the consequences. Just as any real grown-ups would do." -- Tom De Haven

    Entertainment Weekly

    "What DOUBLE DOWN teaches that other memoirs don't--preoccupied, as they tend to be, with the triumph of the individual--is that while we're busy playing at life, life is playing with us as well. And, like the casinos, it always has an edge." -- Walter Kirn New York Magazine

    "What gives their beautifully written book its power are the same gifts that distinguish the Barthelmes' fiction: their intelligence, their eye for detail, and their wry bemusement at the unlucky, unlikely hands that life so often deals." -- Francine Prose Elle

  • excerpts

    Chapter 1 Mississippi We arrived in Hattiesburg almost ten years apart. We'd held plenty of other jobs -- cab driver, construction worker, advertising writer, journalist, art installer, architectural draftsman -- and we'd each done stints at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for graduate degrees, and now we were ready to settle down and teach.

    Rick arrived first, in the mid-seventies, terrified because Mississippi had that reputation, that myth the prominent aspect of which wasn't the lovely Old South with its high manners and splendid architecture, but ignorance, burning, lynching. Being from Houston, having lived five years in New York City, and just out of graduate school, he figured he was profoundly enlightened and Mississippi wasn't. Indeed, his introduction to Hattiesburg was at an all- night gas station on Highway 49 where a lone teenager- slash-halfwit was capturing "pinching" bugs attracted by the bright lights and corralling them in a five- gallon bucket of sand he kept inside his little glass booth, a diversion he favored because, as he said, he liked to watch the bugs kill each other.

    This was two in the morning, and Rick and his girlfriend had been driving all day from Baltimore, where the morning before they'd had brunch with the British literary critic Tony Tanner in the polished- mahogany restaurant on the first floor of a hundred- year-old hotel. Now instead of talking about postmodernism they were facing it, and it didn't seem to know their names.

    So Rick spent the first six weeks of his employment at the University of Southern Mississippi commuting from Houston, a safe four hundred and fifty miles away. In time he discovered that Mississippi was as civilized as anywhere else. The gas jockey notwithstanding, things had apparently changed, and at least in Hattiesburg and around the university, the myth was a phony. In fact, taken as a whole, the people he met in Mississippi began to seem gentler and more humane than many he'd run into in ostensibly finer settings. Probably there were remnants of the "old" Mississippi elsewhere in the New South of the seventies, but those remnants weren't on public view, did not seem dominant. In spite of the benighted reputation, Mississippi seemed more than its share enlightened.

    Steve arrived nine years later, and if some of his impressions were different, maybe that was because when he arrived in Hattiesburg he had already spent the previous two years teaching at a university in Monroe, a dim, depressed, trash-strewn Louisiana town where even the snakes hung their heads. If the races seemed to him stiffer with each other in Mississippi than they had been in Louisiana, Hattiesburg itself was clean and bright, and the people were friendly. There was more money apparent, and the roads were mostly paved. During his first weeks in town he noticed two, maybe three Volkswagen beetles. You wouldn't have found them in Monroe.

    So there we were, college professors and fiction writers. We were middle-aged, born in Texas, raised in a family of mostly fallen Catholics, with a father who was a successful and innovative architect and teacher, and a mother who was an English teacher and a reader, an actress in college who had wanted to pursue the stage but didn't quite escape the conventionality of her time. One older brother, Don, was a leading literary figure. Two other older siblings made their livings writing: Joan as a public relations vice president for Pennzoil Corporation, Pete as a Houston advertising executive and an author of mystery novels.

    Growing up, we were trained in restlessness and doubt. Conformity wasn't prized. The house our father designed in 1939 -- a large, low, flat-roofed box with a single small square room standing up on top -- was an anomaly in a neighborhood of ranch- style and Tudoresque homes. Our house looked like a large, rectilinear Merrimac. On the empty grasslands west of Houston, it startled passersby.

    The house had been made of wood alone, but later the exterior was covered in copper. Our father had this idea about copper. He had read that when sprayed with a certain acid compound, copper would discolor in a particularly attractive way, so he hired a contractor and several workmen and had the vertical siding covered in sheet copper. Then he bought a sprayer, a two-foot tank with a manual pump, and he mixed up a batch of the acid that was going to make the copper come alive in an exquisite turquoise. Well, it didn't happen. The copper asserted itself, and from that time forward the house was -- exquisitely -- brown.

    Inside, it was a hotbed of modern furniture: eelegant Saarinen chairs, the bent birch of Aalto dining tables and chairs, almost every piece of furniture or fabric that Charles and Ray Eames ever designed, from the little wire-frameeeee footstools all the way up to, much later, the big rosewood and black leather chair, now ubiquitous. The rest of the furniture Father built himself, or had us build under his supervision. Things were always being redone, reconstructed, redesigned in accordance with some new idea he had.

    We went to Catholic schools, and there, along with the conventional subjects, we were schooled in guilt. This was before traditional Catholicism lost its purchase, before "mea culpa" became "my bad," or however it's now translated.

    The Catholics were good at their jobs. You're eight, maybe, and you go into your older sister's room and take a new yellow pencil away from her desk and erase some drawing you have been working on, and suddenly you think: This is a sin. I'm stealing. What you're stealing is eraser. But that's not the best part. The best part comes next, when the eight-year- old thinks: No, this is prideful worry. Worrying too much about sins is a sin. It's "scrupulousness." For our purposes, the complaint that this indoctrination is barbarous is secondary to the idea that a Catholic education can accustom a soul to a high level of stimulation, and if you get too comfortable later in life, you miss it.

    After high school, we each left our parents' house and the Catholic schools, Rick to Tulane, back to Houston, then New York; Steve to Boston, Austin, and California. We ran through three or four colleges apiece, worked different jobs, were rarely in the same city for more than a couple of months at a time, but over that period, in different ways we were doing the same thing: in fits and starts, we learned to write. Significantly, we learned the skill of editing -- what our father was always doing with the house -- which is in itself a school of dissatisfaction.

    Years passed. We got older, more tired, less strident. We tried, not too successfully, to learn to lighten up. We went to Mississippi, where our lives were all aesthetics, literature, art, music, film, narrative, character, culture -- teaching school. Books and movies in a pleasant town, handsome beyond what we had imagined, lush and green year-round, sixty thousand beings at the intersection of two highways. Originally a lumber and rail town, crossroads in a pine forest, Hattiesburg was a suburb attached to no city, distantly resembling some suburb of Houston twenty years before. Perfectly congenial, if a little short on excitement.

    After teaching a few years, we had lost some connection with the world outside the academy, the ordinary world pictured in USA Today. We didn't drink very much, didn't smoke, took only sanctioned meds. Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll was a joke. We became, through no fault of our own, adults. Kids came to the writing program from all over the country, often from much better schools, and we helped them find things to write about, find their talents. We knew it was awfully sweet work, in our awfully sweet lives.

    As college...

Available Resources

Related Categories

  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547959351

  • ISBN-10: 0547959354

  • Pages: 208

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 05/21/2001

  • Carton Quantity: 1

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