Bob the Gambler, Frederick Barthelme’s fine 1997 novel about Ray and Jewel Kaiser and Jewel’s teenaged daughter RV, concerns itself with the introduction of a fourth member into their pieced-together Mississippi family: gambling, and its effect on their love for one another.
Barthelme knows loss. The one-after-another death of his parents in the mid-Nineties, on the heels of the death of his big brother Donald in 1989, made it possible for Barthelme and his brother Steven (both of them college professors and, like Donald, writers) to gamble away more than $250,000 — most of their inheritance.
Anyone familiar with the allure of gambling will easily understand Ray and Jewel’s beautiful and twisted illogic when they risk all they have — and all they don’t. Barthelme’s accomplishment here is that he makes it possible, too, for his non-wagering readership to comprehend how Ray can, on one hand, cherish a quiet night at home in front of the TV with Jewel and RV, and on the other (the hand holding the cards), risk losing it all.
Along the way, the Kaisers acquaint themselves with other artistic treatises on the subject — most notably Jean-Pierre Melville’s amazing film Bob le Flambeur (providing not only the book with its name, but also RV’s nickname for her stepfather) and Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, whose protagonists’ ill-fated systems and schemes are somehow lost on Ray and Jewel.
Bob the Gambler is infused with Henry James’ “felt life.” Just as there’s no doubt that at some point Bruce Cockburn encountered a bullet hole in “Peggy’s Kitchen Wall,” equally convincing is Barthelme’s elegy to an addiction that promises something (and it’s not money) for nothing.
Barthelme’s writing has always been about gambling: seeing how long he can draw out his sentences, his passages, the moments between his characters, until they reveal more than is on the page. Like Peckinpah’s best slow-motion shots, meaning is not found in the action, the action resides in the meaning.
Writing in the same seductive tones as the addiction itself, Barthelme is clearly best friends with the fleeting yet inveigling sensation that comes from beating the odds: the feeling that he’s somehow, if only for a moment, managed his own destiny.