Bob the Gambler by Frederick Barthelme

The night after I finished this book I found myself before a slot machine in a small casino. I had a feeling and put a quarter in. I won and won again. I stuffed the quarters in my pockets but there were no buckets available. When I lost two quarters in a row I left. Unfortunately this was a dream and I awoke empty handed. Bob the Gambler (Mariner Books, 224) is a beautifully observed, enviably perfect novel by a master who doesn’t seem flashy because he stays within his means. It is also a surprisingly, even surreally loving story. The novel centers around the fissioned nuclear family of down-on-his luck Biloxi architect Ray Kaiser, a plump transplant moved by the Mississippi coastal decay before it was invaded by “gussied-up Motel 6 hotel rooms [and] an ocean of slicked-back hair,” his pretty, witty, and wonderful wife of nine years Jewel, who is tough and stable, and yet the first to thirst for casino action, Jewel’s daughter RV, an amazingly rendered, very sweet fourteen year old mid-90’s teenager whom Bob adores, and Frank, the family dog. All the principals, as well as Bob’s mother, whom we meet later in the book, are expert at the art of the cryptic tough-talking but secretly loving epigram. One of the great charms of this book is the depths of love of the family members both concealed by and revealed by their fragmented banter and quips. There are some wonderful moments and descriptions of daily life and teenage rearing, the euphoric swirl of casino gambling, and the decrepit Mississippi coast. The lasting impression one is left from this book, aside from the controlled brilliance of Barthelme’s prose, is in my opinion a meditation on the meaning of money vis-à-vis love. Bob’s wife’s name, Jewel, is a token of facets of wealth unobtainable by any number of markers or wild infatuation-like risks; theirs, an irreducible love that includes and absorbs others (such as RV) in its understated wake, is the multicolored antithesis of liaisons such as those between David Duke (who make a cameo appearance)–and a sprightly young thing–of any coupling that can be price tagged, exchanged, or discarded. The casino and noncasino lights that surround Jewel, in her preternatural (and perhaps ultimately unrealistic, or at least extremely rare) stability, enact a preciousness beyond money and its temporary accumulations. They symbolize the nonmonetary values of the gift of being, the privilege not of accumulating but of existing-of the privilege of being alive, a spectator of phenomena in a world whose mortal decay, far from being its downfall, guarantees the preciousness of the light show it displays.

Anyone who has taken junkets to Atlantic City may have noticed how on the flight there everyone chatters; they are full of excitement on hope. The way back is different. Everyone, or almost everyone has lost. They are quiet-until the plane lands, at which point they clap. Why? Because, although they have lost their money, they are newly appreciative of the far more precious gift of being alive. That is the mini-miracle, the lottery ticket, the stiff Barthelme hits for us in this wonderful paean to human frailty and true, tough love. In a way, Barthelme, his heart bigger than any red chip, says in this book the exact opposite of comedian Steven Wright’s quip, “You can’t have everything, where would you put it?” Barthelme says (with mathematician Paul Erdos) you do have everything, you have it all, already-you are infinitely rich.

Dorion Sagan, author of The Devil’s Comic (2000) and co-author of Pack of Lies (forthcoming).


“On this Sunday, after the NFL preseason game, we were sitting on the porch quiet as mice when Jewel held up the newspaper and said, “Raymond. Let’s go here and do this,” and “here” was the Paradise casino, a dozen blocks away on the beach in Biloxi, and “this” was gambling.” “So begins this story in which Ray and Jewel Kaiser try out the Paradise. What curious things happen to them, what tricks of chance involving, among others, Jewel’s fourteen-year-old daughter RV, the casino and its personnel, Ray’s dead father, and a mother convinced that a sitcom star is visiting across the street from her house, make up the fabric of this novel about wising up better late than never. Peopled with dazed casino denizens, a lusty grocery-store manager, body-pierced children, and hourly employees in full revolt, Bob the Gambler tells the refreshing story of a couple who, after tumbling headfirst out of their middle-class Garden of Eden, discover they’ve landed in an even more fertile garden outside its walls.”

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