Are you in the mood for a page-turner of a novel with some kick to the plot and some great characters, as well as some thrilling craps action? Then I highly recommend Dice Angel, the new novel by Brian Rouff, published by Hardway Press ($14.95). It's got a great story and is liberally sprinkled with wonderfully eccentric, though highly believable people.
Dice Angel is a first-person narrative following several weeks in the life of Jimmy Delaney, the owner of Jimmy D's in Las Vegas, a bar originally owned by and named after his father. Jimmy D's is your typical Las Vegas "neighborhood" bar complete with band and video-poker machines, and for the most part, a loyal staff and clientele. It has been quite successful over the years due to the hard work of father, Jimmy Sr., and now son, Jimmy Jr.
Unfortunately, for poor Jimmy Delaney, the next few weeks of his life will be the worst few weeks of his life, as he will stare disaster and dissolution in the face. As the novel opens, Jimmy discovers that his video-poker machines have been burglarized that night; then he soon learns that his accountant brother-in-law has made off with all his money; then that he owes the IRS 56 thousand big ones because his brother-in-law never paid the taxes on the bar! Unfortunately for Jimmy, he has no money in the bank and no means of coming up with the needed payments to the IRS, although his bored, erstwhile lawyer thinks a deal can be worked out with the dreaded government agency.
Of course, Jimmy has other worries as well--his sister-in-law's mental and emotional health, for one, since she, too, has been left almost destitute by her conniving accountant husband. Jimmy is also concerned about his beautiful young daughter, Jenny, who loves to spend whatever time she has with daddy at Jimmy D's, much to the disgust of his ever-complaining, whining, misnamed, nasally ex-wife, Joy.
Finally, Jimmy fires his tax lawyer because the guy kept canceling appointments, and decides to work out an arrangement on his own with the IRS agent, the delightfully villainous, super-"civil"-servant, Mr. Poon. And work out a deal he does. The deal is simple. Poon will give Jimmy time to pay off the IRS and in exchange Mr. Poon's band, Come Monday, a Jimmy Buffet tribute band that only plays pre-"Margaritaville" Jimmy Buffet songs--and those poorly--will become the house band at Jimmy D's.
Now Jimmy finds himself in a no-win situation. Keep Poon's deliciously awful band and lose his customers (who hit the streets with alacrity when the band starts to play), thus losing any chance to make enough money to pay off the IRS; or fire Mr. Poon's band and face the wrath of an enraged Poon. He chooses the latter. And Poon swoops in for his revenge, giving Jimmy until the end of the month to come up with all the money he owes the IRS, an impossible task given his circumstances.
Yes, Jimmy Delaney is having a bad time of it.
But he has some friends, in fact, he is well liked by his staff and by a particular homeless person, Pete, who stops by occasionally to shoot the breeze and cage some drinks and food at closing time. Pete gives Jimmy some "sound" financial advice to help Jimmy get out of his current no-win situation. Get in touch with a woman known as the Dice Angel, insists Pete. She'll be able to help Jimmy win at craps, get the bar back, and live happily ever after. Pete even has one of the Dice Angel's cards with him.
Jimmy forgets all about the dice angel until one day he is cleaning out his wallet, preparatory to cleaning out his life, when he sees the card: "Dice Angel: I will bring you luck at craps." What the hell, he's tried everything else, why not try some supernatural soliciting? It can't get any worse, he figures.
So he gives the dice angel, Amaris, a call. And here the book takes a decidedly upbeat turn. Until the arrival of the dice angel, the plight of Jimmy Delaney is the novelistic equivalent of watching a slow-motion car wreck. We sympathize with his plight; understand his feelings; appreciate his dilemma. But as each and every turn for Jimmy, and the reader, comes up "dead end"; as doors close and desperation sets in; we long for a deus ex machina to take place and spare Jimmy the inevitable.
Rouff has created a terrific character in this energetic, upbeat, and quirky woman. She works in, of all places, a colon-cleansing salon as well as doing a little part-time sympathetic magic on the side. She only has three rules for Jimmy in their new partnership:
1., that Jimmy never gamble without her
2., that Jimmy never lie to her
3., that Jimmy not fall in love with her. This last requirement doesn't seem too difficult to Jimmy; after all, Amaris is pushing 60 if she's a day, and she looks as if she's been around the block a few times, in fact, several blocks and more than a few times.
Indeed, Amaris takes Jimmy to the casinos to gamble at craps. These scenes are thrilling and, since I've been there and done that, I can tell you that they have the right feel to them. But I don't want to give away too much. Suffice it to say, that we go on a rollercoaster ride at the end of this novel; at the dice tables with Jimmy and Amaris, for sure, but also in terms of Jimmy's life and the delicate balance of his personal and financial resources. The ending is a true test of character, as well.
Rouff has fashioned a wonderful novel. Jimmy Delaney is a fully realized, wisecracking, sometimes headstrong, but always human being. We see him for what he is--Everyman in trouble, sinking and looking for a life preserver. We care about him from the first page to the last page. And we like him. And against the dice angel's best advice the reader inevitably falls in love with her!
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