High Rollers

In the space of a couple of crazy years, the brothers Frederick and Steven Barthelme, respected writers though by no means in the big time, managed to blow more than a quarter of a million dollars in the Mississippi gambling boats. Double Down is their account of how this happened, what led up to it and spurred them on, and how it ended in tears when, as a final insult, the casino which had taken their money charged them with conspiracy to cheat.

It is a fascinating and bewildering story, although its real subject is not so much their fatal addiction to gambling as, in every sense, their inheritance. The small fortune they destroyed came to them after the death of their troublesome father and they are more interested in him than in what they did to his money. In the end, their book is a memorial to their parents; the gambling is a colorful extra, a narrative thread, a symptom of some larger upset, an excuse.

Like most addicts, the brothers began innocuously. Both of them were night owls and occasionally, instead of going to the movies or settling down to write, they used to drive the seventy miles from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where they taught creative writing, to the casinos around Gulfport. Sometimes they went with their partners or a colleague, more often they went on their own. They played the slots, goofed around at the blackjack tables, won a little, lost a little, then drove back to their sober university routines. It was just another night out, fun and noise and dazzle, and a chance to rub shoulders with the kind of people they would never meet on campus—ordinary folk with boring jobs and no interest at all in books or ideas or whatever else went to make the small change of academic and literary life. Hattiesburg is a placid, relatively affluent little town, “clean and bright,” they say, “and the people were friendly.” The casinos were another world.

Back in the 1830s, when cotton prices were high, the gambling boats that plied the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis were fitted out as floating palaces for the benefit of plantation owners flush with money and determined to have themselves some fun, no matter how much it cost them. The boats were also crowded with professional gamblers and cardsharps—Clark Gable figures with diamond stickpins, gold watch chains, embroidered vests—equally determined to help themselves to the easy money on offer. All that romance is long gone. These days the professionals wear track suits and baseball caps and there is nothing palatial about the modern gambling boats. They don’t even go anywhere; they are simply top-heavy, neon-strung barges—“Wal-Mart[s] with a high flashing-light content,” the Barthelmes call them—moored to concrete pillars a few feet off a particularly dreary stretch of the Delta Coast: “The beaches had never been much good. The sand had been sucked out of Mississippi Sound and spread alongside Highway …

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