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Southwest Book Review: The Gambler's Apprentice

A life of crime starts early for young Willy Bobbins, the main character in Lee Barnes latest novel, The Gambler's Apprentice. At the start of World War I, 16-year-old Willy falls into cattle thieving and violence...not because he wants to, but because he has to in order to survive. His grit is what attracted KNAU's Mary Sojourner, as she explains in her latest Southwest Book Review. 

Lee Barnes knows hard country and hard weather. He knows the need that can drive a man to risk his life. He knows how it is to be a boy barely a man asked to take on a man's hard, bloody and dangerous work. In The Gambler's Apprentice, the prequel to his finely honed Vegas novel, The Lucky, Barnes gives us a boy/man, a time and a country far removed from America 2016 and shows us how a rough country and rough times can burn with an awful radiance.

Willy Bobbins is a Texas cattle thief and a man filled with wild hungers - and he is not yet 16-years-old. America has just entered World War I. Willy and his father, Clay, look out from their ramshackle homestead in West Texas over a landscape that just might be filled with the promises of riches. "Dust hung over the horizon where rolling hills met the mid-morning sky. His eyes shaded under his hat, Clay Bobbins gazed at the distant Balcones, where an amber haze lay still as a stalking cat."

Willy, his brutal father, exhausted mother, sisters and brother live one breath away from financial disaster. As the book opens, the boy and his father set out to rustle Mexican cattle from across the border. It quickly becomes clear that the boy is more man than his drunken father. Willy is not heading into a travel adventure to "find himself or going on a power walk to reclaim his male energy. He is walking and riding for survival.

Willy goes on from that first rustling trip, driven by the need to provide for his family and wreak a kind of vengeance on the economic injustices that have trapped them. He falls in love with a dangerous man's mistress, grows closer and closer to his mysterious brother, Beau, and leaves home to follow a path that is anything but neatly laid out for him. He encounters crooks, grifters and decent people willing to share what little food they have. He apprentices to a con man, but even more deeply, he apprentices to his evolving principles and the absolute knowledge that if he doesn't take care of himself, no one else will.

The Gambler's Apprentice allowed me to inhabit a distant time, a time when communication was not instant. And it was almost impossible for poor people to find a formula for success. I know that time from my own life. In reading Lee Barnes' book, Willy Bobbins became a brother to me. 

Mary Sojourner is the author of three novels: Sisters of the Dream Northland Publishers, 1989; Going Through Ghosts, University of Nevada Press, 2010 and 29, Torrey House Press, 2014; the short story collection, Delicate, Nevermore Press, 2001 and Scribner, 2004; essay collection, Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest University of Nevada Press, 2002 and 2004; memoir, Solace: rituals of loss and desire, Scribner, 2004; and memoir/self-help guide, She Bets Her Life, Seal Press, 2010. She has been a ten-year NPR commentator and now reviews books for KNAU’s Southwest Book Reviews. She’s the author of op eds and columns for High Country News, Yoga Journal, Writers on the Range, Matador Network and dozens of other publications. She was chosen as a Distinguished Writer in Residence in 2007 by the Virginia C. Piper Center for Creative Writing, ASU.
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