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Review: H. Lee Barnes explores the post-traumatic life of an MGM Grand fire survivor in new novel

It’s 1980, and Jude is a young blackjack dealer at the MGM Grand when a fire breaks out in the hotel. Unlike 85 others, he narrowly escapes the inferno, but emotionally he is deeply scarred by the tragedy. He’s haunted by images of the people he saw jumping out of the high-rise windows:

“A man plummeted down the wall from a top floor. He careened off a ledge and tumbled downward to the convention-room roof on the second floor. Then, almost immediately, a second jumper followed, screaming as he descended. My insides went hollow.”

For the next 20 years, Jude plods through life, continuing to deal cards, while never talking about the MGM fire or pursuing his dream to start a masonry business. But then comes a string of mishaps — he’s fired on a trumped-up charge, involved in a car accident, arrested on a bogus assault charge. Financially desperate and frustrated, Jude is drawn by a beautiful woman into a casino cheating ring.

This is the intriguing setup of H. Lee Barnes’ new novel, Cold Deck, a finely crafted fiction that’s also an authoritative look at how the casino business and cheating scams work. (Barnes previously worked as a blackjack dealer and police officer.)

Cold Deck reminded me of another casino-cheating novel, Edwin Silberstang’s undervalued Snake Eyes, published in 1977. Silberstang was best known for his nonfiction. Under the pen name J. Edward Allen, he wrote a popular series of books teaching the basics of casino games such as blackjack, craps and roulette. But Silberstang also was a skilled novelist. Snake Eyes is a tightly woven narrative that maintains its dramatic intensity while providing readers with a detailed education in how table games are played and casinos operate.

Of the two, Barnes is the better fiction writer. His characters are more fully developed, his style more sophisticated. Nevertheless, Cold Deck feels like a direct descendant of Snake Eyes, including a common thread that Las Vegas is a place where people too often succumb to the ravages of temptation.

Barnes: “In Las Vegas a degenerate lifestyle was as easy to slip into as an air-conditioned theater, and willpower holds up only so long when you feel you’re at a dead end.”

Silberstang: “There was something sick about this whole thing, and he knew it was best not to think about it too much.”

Almost single-handedly, Barnes is expanding the narrow genre of serious Las Vegas fiction. In 2003, he gave us The Lucky, a coming-of-age epic inspired by the legends and realities of one of Las Vegas’ iconic families, the Binions. Last year, Barnes delivered Car Tag, a short novel about, in part, brothers growing up in Las Vegas with neglectful parents: a cocktail waitress lacking in maternal instincts and a card-playing stepfather endlessly pursuing the next big score.

Cold Deck is most compelling when focused on the characters involved in the cheating scheme and Jude’s travails as he struggles to extricate himself from it. Barnes is less successful in depicting Jude’s family life with his son and daughter. As skilled a writer as he is, dialogue between a father and his preteen daughter is not his forté. To borrow Don DeLillo’s famous phrase, Barnes does not excel with “around-the-yard-and-in-the-house” fiction.

But he more than makes up for this minor deficiency with his spot-on portraits of casino workers and the authenticity of his depiction of the elaborate cheating scheme. In this arena, the dialogue sparkles. Jude tells the cheating scam’s ringleader: “But I’ve been a good dealer. I’ve never cheated.”

“Will that be on your tombstone?” Ben asked.

“I warned you he was a nice guy,” Audie said.

Barnes shares with Silberstang a desire to provide an informed perspective on the mysterious and misunderstood world of casino gambling. He rubs the gloss off the manufactured image of Las Vegas, not to condemn its primary industry but to offer a more tangible and honest representation of it.

COLD DECK H. Lee Barnes, University of Nevada Press, 201 pages