KNAU's Southwest Book Review: Cold Deck

May 9, 2014

Cold Deck is the latest novel by Nevada-based writer H. Lee Barnes. Set in Las Vegas, it chronicles the life of a single father, struggling to raise his children and keep his life from spiraling out of control in "Sin City". In KNAU's latest Southwest Book Review, Mary Sojourner says Cold Deck is poignant, gritty and kept her reading well into the night.

Credit University of Nevada Press

Former Green Beret in Vietnam, Vegas undercover cop, card dealer and private investigator, H. Lee Barnes now writes from the raw heart of his own life - and not. In his most recent novel Cold Deck, Barnes - who has never raised children - writes the relationship between Jude Helms, a divorced man and his teenage kids, with such tenderness, that I found myself aching for the family. While the other central element of the book - a potentially deadly scam to cheat a big Vegas casino out of over a million dollars kept me reading late into the night, it is the beautifully rendered connections between Jude and his children that have stayed with me.

Jude Helms is a casino dealer who had escaped - not undamaged - from the deadly 1980 MGM Grand casino fire. What he saw and heard during the horrific moments the casino became an inferno is lodged deep in his memory, cocooned in his heart and mind. He sleepwalks through his life, losing his marriage and his profession through his numbness. Jude is fully alive only when it comes to his children. His deepest intention and longing are to protect Beth and Lucas from abrasive joint custody, and - as his life descends out of control - the consequences of his beleaguered decision to become part of a vicious criminal's cold deck scheme.

Barnes' people - Vegas dealers, waitresses, cops and cons - are written with subtle detail, their descriptions accurate down to the villain's perpetual tan and flashy jewelry, their dialogue something you might have overheard in a bar or on the street. Barnes never fails his characters or his readers. In a time of writing that is increasingly detached from the real world of real working people and the landscapes they occupy, he writes about pit bosses and gang soldiers; bored croupiers and tired-eyed dancers; dirty neon streets and the vast and beautiful Nevada desert. And, in Cold Deck, a poignantly real divorced dad, his children real beyond buzz-word cliches of adolescence, and his dilemma brutally real to any of us who move through our lives uncertain of whether our money or the month will run out first.

I recently asked Barnes why he named his hero "Jude". He said, "Jude's name is an homage to Thomas Hardy's character 'Jude', and to Saint Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes. In the end, of course, my Jude is anything but hopeless."