H. Lee Barnes, Author . Univ. of Nevada $22 (416p) ISBN 978-0-87417-539-4

If it is true that people are only as happy as they have already made up their minds to be, then the characters in Barnes's debut novel must be the most miserable bunch of folks to ever hit paper. Barnes (Dummy Up and Deal: Inside the Culture of Casino Dealing) spins an epic soap opera of deceit, broken dreams and violence set in Las Vegas in the glittery 1950s, '60s and '70s. Barnes is as knowledgeable about Nevada history and casino gaming operations as he is about the little virtue and great vice in the human heart. The result is a vigorous tale of high hopes and low self-esteem, featuring characters adrift in a sea of bad choices and selfish behavior. Through a series of curious circumstances, 14-year-old Peter Elkins becomes the legal ward of Willy Bobbins, a hard-drinking casino owner who can be warm and generous at one moment and utterly ruthless the next. Bobbins is a legendary gambler who cannot read, has a son who is a homicidal drug addict and a daughter who is an alcoholic slut. Willy sees good things in Peter, but through the years he is hopelessly disappointed. Willy hopes Peter will go to college, become a lawyer, marry his daughter and help him run his casino, the Lucky, but Peter is a petty thief who has killed a man with a golf club and would rather be a cowboy on Willy's Montana cattle ranch. Tragedy, heartbreak, disappointment and death are everyone's only rewards. Darkly humorous at first, the story turns increasingly grim as the relationship between Willy and Peter sours. The gloom may eclipse the bright lights of Vegas, but Barnes's engaging voice and quirky plotting keep the reader turning pages. (Sept. 1)

Forecast:A great jacket (modeled on a red-patterned playing card) and the local publisher should make this a good bet in regional bookstores.

Reviewed on: 06/16/2003
Release date: 08/01/2003
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