Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer You Bet Your Life

By Leonard Gill

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  The next time you're minding your own business mindlessly feeding the quarter slots, kindly consider for a moment Raymond and Jewel Kaiser, residents of that "outlet-mall version of Las Vegas" known as Biloxi, Mississippi.

Ray's a disenchanted architect in no hurry to resume work. Jewel, the bread-winner, is self-employed at what is fuzzily described as a "consulting" job. RV, who whines, drinks, smokes pot, hangs out in parking lots, and represents today's typical 14-year-old, is Jewel's wise-cracking daughter by a previous marriage. Raymond's mother, Leona, lives alone in Bay St. Louis fixating on the John Larroquette look-alike next door. And his retired father back in Houston, "a sad old guy, messy ... a hard case," complains of raw testicles from sitting around so much.

One Sunday evening, after the NFL preseason game and with nothing better to do, Ray and Jewel drive the dozen blocks to a floating warehouse outfitted in neon and six shades of purple, step inside the Paradise casino for the first time, and exit with money they didn't have when they walked in. In the space of weeks, however, they're into breakneck losses to go with the breakneck wins, and major losses when they try for the big time. Among those losses (in descending order of bankability): their checking accounts, their savings, their Keoghs, their IRAs, RV's college fund, their $35,000 in credit-card advances, both their Explorers, their furniture, their appliances, their very home, and, to all indications, their minds. About the only thing the couple don't lose out on is their marriage and even that would be up for grabs if they could cash in on it. Their one best shot, with everything gone, is to go where the odds, for once, are in their favor: They bet on each other.

The Kaisers, needless to say, will not be serving as billboard material for the casino industry. But they do serve as a perfect pair playing off one another comically and tragically and against the odds in Frederick Barthelme's latest novel, Bob the Gambler. How did Ray and Jewel Kaiser, an attractive couple, a smart couple who should know better, get themselves in such a fix?

Barthelme doesn't have to try for answers because the easiest answer's at hand -- in Ray's case, the hand of blackjack that could erase his losses and even leave him with a little something extra. Why, then, won't he call it a night the moment his luck turns? There's always the possibility of a greater windfall, of course, but there's the greater possibility that Ray, like his father, is simply "a hard case," thrilled to court, if not invite, ruin, in order to flout the very conventions of success that most of us work to achieve.

Ray's had his success and made sure it wouldn't last. He moved with Jewel to the Gulf Coast when it was still "broken down and sloppy, a junky place to live," and aggressively sought out and won a reputation for being "a brilliant but hard-to-get-along-with architect." The work dried up, however, when the civic and charitable events he'd been invited to attend went unattended, and with his poor showing came poor business. Ray closed his office, Paradise beckoned, and the rest is a lesson in how not to test the "charity" of your neighborhood casino. Ray and Jewel do test it and discover rock-bottom. You might just have to take their word for it at the close of Bob the Gambler that at rock-bottom one can also sometimes arrive at unexpected but major contentment.

Frederick Barthelme directs the writing program at the University of Southern Mississippi, but he must know his way full-well around a gaming table, the players, the on-lookers, the very air and rhythms inside a casino, and if varieties exist, a Mississippi casino. But gambling and the fever that attaches to it aren't his sole subjects here, however precisely and believably he manages to put them on the page. If Raymond and Jewel Kaiser can see themselves as paired off, faithful to each, in some great comedy, you'd be losing out too to look on them only as there but for the grace of God.


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