Frederick and
Steven Barthelme

Frederick and Steven Barthelme teach English literature and writing at the University of Mississippi in Hattiesburg. Starting in 1995, they began to drive down together to the Grand Casino in Gulfport to play blackjack, the slots, roulette. When their father, a Houston architect, died, they took his inheritance --- more than $250,000 in bonds --- and blew it, managed to squander all that he had left and then some.

In 1998, the Grand Casino indicted the two of them, claiming they had conspired with a dealer to defraud the casino. Their case created much ado. Here were two respected college professors blowing a considerable inheritance in a seedy Mississippi casino. And then --- on top of that --- there was the possibility that they had been trying to screw the casino. The chance that the two might spend considerable time in the hoosegow for their malfeasances added much pith to the story.

The phrase Double down comes from a somewhat arcane rule in blackjack, where you take your two cards, flip them up, double your bet, and have the dealer give you another card down. It doubles your chance to win but it also doubles your chance to lose.

Double Down, however, is not just another gambling we-lost-it-all tale. Nor is it merely a confessional about two brothers' addiction. Rather, it's a tale of two adults, acting like children, gone temporarily nuts --- then offering up evidence to us in the form of a book. "This will make it so you can understand the source of our nuttiness," they tell us. However, the clues they dole out make it apparent that their sad story grows from another facet of their life history --- far different than the one they think.

Early on, we get an extended exegesis on what gambling is, what it means to win, and what it means to lose. These meditations are some of the best of the writing in the book: "Gambling is a child's vice practices largely by adults..."

    If the cards go your way, there is a sudden decompression, that striking yes! that has become the fundamental, international gesture of success. All the pressure in your head has dissipated, and you stand back from the table, draw a deep breath, wait for the dealer to match your chips in kind.


    If the cards run against you and you lose, the blood that's in your head seems to fan out of your skull. All the heat you felt inside rushes to the surface of your skull, then it slowly sizzles away as you realize the size of your loss.

Winning and losing, they tell us, may not be all that different:

    The losing part is not fun, exactly. In fact, fun doesn't come into it, but the heat, the dizzying adrenal rush, is much the same whether the chips come back to you or go in the dealer's rack.

§     §     §

It all begins with the family. Donald Barthelme --- that revolutionary noir writer who put together strange and wonderful bits of fiction for The New Yorker --- appears here. It turns out that he was brother to the two. They feel his death involved some cheating by so-called friends:

    When Mother died we were fiercely quiet. People had spoken too much when our brother Don died. Two old friends --- Roger Angell, Jack Barth --- wrote brief, lovely eulogies. But Don was a minor public celebrity as well as a major figure in the literary community, and everybody wanted a piece of him. And took it, too, one after another...People of the most tenuous acquaintance attached themselves ever so firmly in public after his death, distorting his memory, making a commodity of him for their own purposes...With Mother, the problem was not public; the problem was private. We were too close and too sensitive, and we didn't want anybody to mention her.

"We were too close and too sensitive," they tell us. "Our mother was like an act of spiritual perfection, the kindest, wisest, most forgiving, most beautifully balanced person we ever knew." This, we contend, is a clue to the true story that underpins this narrative, that tiny mirror under the dealers' hole card that let's you know what is really going on. It's tied in with mother, and their perfectionist father who --- if you did something wrong --- could make you feel like "you were the stupidest bag of dirt in a world of bags of dirt." These are two professor brothers, mind you, teaching the same subjects at the same college, blowing a quarter million dollars, getting in bad trouble with the state authorities --- then blaming it all on the death of that testy old man who could make them feel like "bags of dirt."

§     §     §

We have dysfunction here, if you will pardon the expression, in spades. In all dysfunctional families there is something known as enmeshment. People can't get away from their history, and often, away from each other. They carry destructiveness into their daily lives, and into other lives as well. All participants in a "stuck" family must devote considerable energy to hiding the truth. That's what makes it dysfunctional.

In these family systems, there has to be a good guy --- usually a mother, sometimes a grandmother, father or sister --- who everyone thinks of (automatically) as a saint. Too, there has to be a bad guy --- someone out of control: maybe a brute, an alcoholic, a drug-head, or just an abusive jerk. There has to be a whistle-blower, the famous "cry for help." It can be a boy who suddenly turns into a crazed juvenile delinquent; it can be a daughter becoming anorexic, bulemic; it can be anyone trying suicide (and there are many forms of suicide --- emotional, physical, fiscal). Finally, over it all lies a dense haze of false signals, false clues, a major fog of words. It's known as denial.

Disguised as a story of a mysterious compulsion, Double Down is, rather, a classic tale of a self-destruct family. The major clue is the writer, or rather, the two writers, who --- as we read along --- come across as being very odd. This on gambling:

    We had had good luck with addictions in the past. Both of us had been drinkers and smokers. Rick had been a drunk in his early twenties, but had stopped dead after he moved to New York and discovered that getting drunk and waking up at four a.m. on a Lower East Side street was not healthy. Steve had long since given up heavy drinking for steady drinking, three drinks a day, give or take a couple, for the past thirty years. Both of us had had smoking habits...

Or this, just before the blast at those who tried to take "a piece" of Don:

    The loss of our mother and father in our own middle age --- Rick was four years older than Steve --- was a greater shock than might seem nature, because the family was an unnaturally large factor in our psychological arithmetic.

Or, take this one, just one sentence:

    We were often at different tables, and sometimes during the early morning hours Rick would come to where Steve was playing and say, "I need a thousand, I have to double down."

English majors call it "persona." Psychologists call it something else. This flipping back and forth between first person plural, third person singular, and first person singular is not only confusing, it's strange. "We," "his," "us," "his," "our." Who exactly are we talking about? Who's writing this? How many omniscient viewers do we have here, anyway?

It's not happenstance that we find the word "double" in the title. As in doppelgänger, defined by the dictionary as "a ghostly counterpart of a living person." These two --- Rick and Steve --- sometimes we, sometimes I, sometimes he, add up to something more than one but less than two, becoming, finally, a peculiar inversion of schizophrenia. This is, rather than gambling, or indictments, or death of a parent, is, we suspect, the heart of the book, and the key to the two of them. These two are enmeshed in each other, a regular Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the card tables --- so much so that it is hard for us to keep them apart, almost blinding us to the reason that they got into this garish mess.

No wonder they called it Double Down. The two of them: down... down... waaaay down.

Their cry for help, we suspect, was, at first, the throwing away of so much money, so stupidly, so quickly. Their apprehension by the casino, all a part of this, had much to do with the way they looked and acted: these guys weren't a couple of truck drivers out for a binge, but two soft-talking professors.

The loudest and probably the saddest cry --- more of a long, dragged-out wail --- is this bit of creative writing, sent out to the public and called Double Down.

It could just as well have been called Cri de Coeur.

--- Lolita Lark

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