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Blackjacked

What are a couple of smart, ironic writers doing in a place like a casino? They're (how did you guess?) losing. But their loss is the readers' gain.

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Double Down shows that wit and high intelligence are no defense against self-deception.  

Double Down
Frederick and Steven Barthelme
Houghton Mifflin; 198 pages; $24

A dollar and a dream equal a nightmare more often than they add up to happiness. It's a secret that everyone knows, but still a secret. The bets are made, the cards are dealt, and the odds take over from there, performing their gyrating, seductive dance. How the dance will end can be predicted, which is what makes gambling a business, but there is plenty of time before that point for players to imagine nicer endings, which is what makes gambling a pleasure. This gap between knowledge and hope, probability and possibility, is where the gambler lives his fevered life and the reason they call the casino floor "the pit."

Frederick and Steven Barthelme's Double Down is a memoir of falling headlong into this hole, and of waking up on the way down too late to stop the descent but not to watch it, which is one definition of irony. The brothers, both fiction writers who live and teach at the University of Southern Mississippi, are nothing if not ironic and self-aware, which somehow adds to the terror of their story, and proves that wit and high intelligence provide no protection against self-deception. You can be keen and hip and still be had; the pain of this lesson wafts up from the story like cigarette smoke from a blackjack table. New dupes for an old fraud, these Barthelmes, and bigger dupes than most. By the end of the book, they've lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and stand on the verge of losing their freedom as a result of a criminal charge that's out of Kafka. On flimsy evidence, and with no warning, they're accused of conspiring with a card dealer, and though the charges were ultimately dropped, it doesn't make the book any less unsettling.

The trip starts slowly. Casinos were new to Mississippi when the brothers started visiting them, and the brothers were new to casinos. They fall prey to the places' garish charms with a combination of wry condescension and juvenile enthusiasm. They register fully and instantly the creepy atmospherics of the joints -- the too-cold air-conditioning, the lights and clatter, the cheerful dealers and perky waitresses -- and yet they give in to them just as quickly, voluntarily surrendering their good sense and replacing it with a wised-up, tough-guy stance. As the brothers portray it, gambling is a contract -- a deal that innocence makes with cynicism. The players pretend to ignore the house's advantage and the house ignores the players' foolishness. Gamblers feel smarter than they are because that's the deal; the drinks are always free in a casino, and no one calls you on your self-delusions.

Before the brothers start to lose their money, they lose their family, a snappy, close-knit clan of intellectuals that feels superior to its Houston neighbors. Don, an older brother, is a deceased major writer, one of America's greatest dark humorists. The father is a brittle architect who nurtures a sense of undeserved obscurity. The mother is a great beauty who dreamed of acting but settled for a private, domestic state. Life at home, as the brothers remember it, consisted of nonstop teasing and one-upmanship. It was wounding but stimulating, like the gambling halls. When the parents die in quick succession, the brothers set out to recapture that edgy intimacy around a card table. And it works, at first.

"'Double Down' shows how the casino tables imitate our closest, most authentic human bonds, yet spares us from having to suffer should they break."

Having been taught as children that they're exceptional, the brothers are primed to believe they're also lucky, or, if not lucky, then tough enough to lose. Bankrolled by a modest inheritance, they give themselves over to the tables the way other grieving children might seek out the Lord. Fluke wins that leave them hyperventilating are followed by grinding, gradual losses. Getting even becomes an obsession, driving them to bet more frantically. Sunset and sunrise become meaningless markers; the brothers come to measure the hours in chips. Their writing captures the weird plasticity of the gambler's moods as exhilaration turns to emptiness, then back to exhilaration with no transitions. They go to the tables to be worked over, pummeled, and they find perverse comfort in the hurly-burly.

The brothers also find solace in the gamblers. The tiny psychic abrasions that come from sitting next to a big winner while you lose, or from winning while your seatmate struggles, act as a potent remedy for loneliness. To the brothers, their fellow players are noble comrades. It's all for one and one for all against the implacable, overarching house, which is how life in a family can feel, too. That's the genius of this downbeat memoir: It shows how the casino tables imitate our closest, most authentic human bonds, yet spares us from having to suffer should they break. False friendship is like real friendship without the pain, and all too often it will do just fine. "We liked thinking of our fellow gamblers as a team, liked treating money -- that bully -- as if it were so many slim-jim paper towels, liked the fact that people don't lie much while gambling. A community of vice makes hypocrisy unnecessary."

The Barthelmes run out of luck and friends before they run out of money. Despite mounting losses, they stop playing only when their favorite casino goes in an eye blink from friendly opponent to menacing enemy. One day, the brothers learn that they've been charged with cheating at blackjack, a felony in their state. Technically, they're innocent, but spiritually, they're deeply implicated. They've not only squandered their inheritance but blown their sense of chosenness, of specialness. The humiliation is almost metaphysical. To lose and know you're losing and laugh it off, and then be blindsided by absurdity -- assaulted by actual unpredictability instead of the tame version offered at the tables -- leaves a powerful, post-traumatic resonance.

The Barthelmes hardened themselves to loss in tolerable, ritual doses, then learned in a rush that they were softer than ever. 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.


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