Beautiful Losers


Feeling lucky? You probably face better odds than writer brothers Frederick and Steven Barthelme, who managed to squander a quarter of a million dollars in Mississippi’s just-barely-offshore casinos over the course of two years. The Barthelmes’ cumulative losing streak was retarded, if not terminated, when the pair was indicted in 1997 for colluding with a dealer to cheat at blackjack; the charges, which followed their humbling expulsion from Gulfport’s Grand Casino in November 1996, were only dropped this past August.

Double Down, an expanded version of a 1998 New Yorker essay, is the brothers’ sad and pitiful account of those gambling years, an era that also included their beloved mother’s death in 1995 and their father’s the following year. I recall reading their New Yorker piece and thinking how odd it was of them to devote several thousand words to their misadventures without specifically mentioning Frederick’s 1997 novel, Bob the Gambler. Were the pair nervous about someone taking its title—a reference to Jean-Pierre Melville’s well-known film noir about a compulsive gambler’s plot to rob a casino—too literally? Or did they decide that reality simply trumped fiction’s facade in this instance?

The Barthelmes’ head-scratching what-the-hell-happened-to-us? of a memoir begins by establishing the conditions amid which all sorts of bad moral juju might go down. After dithering around for years, Frederick and Steven found themselves teaching at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. “Now instead of talking about postmodern-ism,” says Frederick of he and his girlfriend’s arrival in the New South, “they were facing it, and it didn’t seem to know their names.” In novels like Bob the Gambler and The Brothers, Frederick depicts his new environs as a region whose intrinsic character has been almost entirely obliterated by pop culture. The brothers became bored in short order.

Blame it on their upbringing; the Barthelmes do. “A Catholic education,” they write, “can accustom a soul to a high level of stimulation, and if you get too comfortable later in life, you miss it.” Toss in good-cop-bad-cop parenting—a saintly mother who loved them “perfectly,” a difficult and unpleasable architect father—and you have a reliable recipe for unhappiness. Their parents’ deaths (preceded by that of their elder brother, the famous Donald) left the pair with a yawning chasm they filled with a heap of magical thinking. Yet Frederick, at least, continued to write, edit The Mississippi Review, and teach, even as the casino’s lure intensified. So much for the therapeutic properties of culture.

“It is as good to lose as to win,” rationalize the Barthelmes. “There is only a shadow of difference between them, and that shadow is insignificant. Winning is better than losing, but neither one is the goal of gambling, which is playing. Losing never feels like the worst part of gambling. Quitting often does.” Quitters, as they say, never win. But it only gets worse as the Barthelmes run through their savings, credit lines, and inheritance in a gaming grind whose transcendent moments occur in the most banal surroundings imaginable.

A kind wit often illuminates the dopiness of everyday life in Frederick’s fiction. Double Down, on the other hand, has a repetitive sob-story quality to it, particularly when the brothers recount how they dealt—or didn’t—with their father’s death. Double Down offers another take on the scene halfway through Bob the Gambler, when the title character (a man with a reputation as a “brilliant but hard-to-get-along-with architect”) learns of his father’s lonely and awkward death, the result of a distressing encounter with a TV tray while getting up to play a copy of The Sound of Music. But no dark levity lightens the brothers’ reenactment of their real father’s death, which may or may not have occurred in precisely this way, and their subsequent guilt over how they let him down in his final months. In Bob the Gambler, the son makes a promising new home for himself, his wife, and his stepdaughter in his mother’s house. In real life, the nest remains as emptied as the nest egg.