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Shuffling responsibility for losses onto others


There is something sadly chilling about "Double Down," as if the reader is listening to a talkative coroner describing an autopsy.

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The corpse here is the gambling experience described by two low-key, matter-of-fact brothers, Frederick and Steven Barthelme. In casinos in Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., they compulsively gambled away a quarter of a million dollars of inheritance money from their architect father.

On and off for two years, they left their wives at home and drove the 70 miles from Hattiesburg to Gulfport, stayed all night in the casinos and drove home bleary eyed as losers in the morning.

That they can tell their story so excruciatingly well, does not mitigate the fact that they were horribly dumb in falling for gambling's age-old siren call. Judging from the book - and surprisingly, they truly don't know how to quit yet - gambling is, well, OK. The result is a book of brilliantly wrought explanations, confusions, and long-winded aversions. "An addiction was just an addiction, a set of circumstances, a habit that could be undone, rebuilt, fixed," the two insist at one point, as if they could snap their fingers and walk away.

They write in a tone of compelling candor, seeking to be excused and soliciting our understanding because, right or wrong, this is their story, and little else is important.

They blame their father and, to a lesser degree, their mother and genetics. But first, in trying to understand what went wrong, it's hard to forget that the brothers are respected authors and teachers at the University of Southern Mississippi where Frederick edits the highly regarded literary journal Mississippi Review. He also wrote a novel, "Bob the Gambler" (Houghton Mifflin).

The popular consensus might be that these guys, as educators, should know better, which of course is the baffling part when privileged, educated people prove to be their own worst enemies.

They spent so much time at casinos and were so well known to the dealers, that when they were accused of cheating and charged with conspiracy, they couldn't believe the gambling world had turned on them.

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But it had. Scared and offended, they backed away from gambling, but eventually switched casinos and returned to their obsession. They hired a lawyer and were acquitted this summer.

Through all this, the brothers, as professors, feign their fondness for Joe Average, the kind of man who holds down a regular job, mows his lawn, and lives life with steady but unexciting normalcy. Through gambling, they bizarrely assume they are "regular guys."

In the end, the brothers write this cautionary tale well, but they allow their moral confusion to trample on the simplest of life's truisms: Don't blame others for bad judgment that is wholly your own.

*David Holmstrom is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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