”Gambling is of course a very expensive way to beat reason,” write Frederick (”Rick”) 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 a day.” Better they should have stayed awake for a night and a day, and skipped the casinos. Their bad run lasted two years and resulted in losses greater than a quarter of a million dollars.
But why try beating the odds in the first place? For the brothers Barthelme — writers of literary fiction (their brother Donald, an esteemed short story author, died in 1989) — the waterborne casinos of Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., seemed a good way to add just a little dab of risk, a smidgen of jeopardy, to their otherwise quiet and predictable lives as English professors at the University of Southern Mississippi. In only a matter of months, though, Rick and Steve had graduated from the baby slots and five-dollar card tables to the high-stakes blackjack salon, betting and losing, betting and losing. Salaries, savings, credit card advances—betting and losing ”everything we could get our hands on.”
And following the death of their elderly father, Donald — a Houston architect — they got their hands on a bundle, an inheritance that totaled about $300,000. ”We were happy to have our father’s money, money he had worked hard to save and keep, to cultivate, and we knew it was the only large sum we were ever likely to get for any reason, from anyone.” Nevertheless, they blew it. Every penny. And then some.
Which is why the Barthelmes were so astonished, even amused (at first), when on the morning of November 11, 1996, they were hustled away from the gaming tables by security personnel at Gulfport’s Grand Casino and bluntly accused of cheating. Cheating? How could anyone believe they were cheating when practically all they ever did was lose? (On the same night that surveillance cameras reportedly recorded the brothers receiving hand signals from a blackjack dealer, they had just dropped yet another $10,000.) But the accusation was no joke, and several months later, they found themselves indicted on felony charges of conspiring to cheat the casino by ”acquiring knowledge not available to all players.” The all-night gambling that began as a lark and became an addiction had now turned into a nightmare—and a humiliatingly public nightmare once a feature article about the indictments appeared on the front page of The New York Times, followed by a slew of stories in other newspapers and magazines and on TV.
Yet as bizarre and costly as the Barthelmes’ legal ordeal most certainly was (past tense: All charges were dismissed last August), this is no mere cautionary tale. It’s a brutally candid, unflattering self-portrait of two successful middle-aged men (Rick, 55, has published 11 books of fiction, including — ironically enough — 1997’s Bob the Gambler, and Steve, 52, published a well-reviewed collection of poetry and short stories, And He Tells the Little Horse the Whole Story, in 1987) who managed, somehow, to sail through their adulthood behaving like ”overage children.” Driving to the 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 only 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. Astounded — though not particularly 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. A-
Frederick & Steven Barthelme