The turn of the wheel: the many lives of writer H. Lee Barnes
by Caleb Cage
"A lot of the themes that I work with are within the context of the lives I have lived," says Nevada author H. Lee Barnes. "My characters are grassroots people who struggle to make it to the next day." An Army brat who grew up "all over the Southwest," Barnes was a Green Beret in Vietnam, the subject of his first story collection, Gunning for Ho and his forthcoming memoir, When We Walked Above the Clouds. After the military, he found himself in law enforcement -- "If you've been in combat, you kinda drift toward things that are just as adrenaline-raising" -- working as a Clark County deputy, a detective and a state narcotics officer in Carson City. Off and on, he also worked as a casino dealer and a private investigator, including a "really boring" stint tracking cheats in Las Vegas casinos -- experiences that lend depth to his nonfiction account of casino culture, Dummy Up and Deal, and his novel, The Lucky.
Barnes is tall, slender and muscular, with a close-shaved head and square jaw, all of which adds to his tough-guy persona and makes his previous demanding, dangerous professions seem less surprising. The only surprise might be that a man with his background has become one of Nevada's most prominent writers, inducted into the state Writers Hall of Fame in 2009. It didn't happen by accident; he'd always loved reading and writing. "The first story I wrote was about the shooting," Barnes says, referring to an incident when he was a narcotics cop that resulted in his arrest; after he was exonerated, he resigned. "I discovered I wasn't a good writer," he says, "but I had the discipline to write every day." He decided to commit himself to writing, earning a degree in English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, then an MFA in creative writing at Arizona State University.
"Over the next five years, I produced, I think, 20 to 25 short stories that were published, and a couple of essays," he says. Many have Nevada settings; the collection Minimal Damage contains several stories that take place in Las Vegas, and the short story "Snake Boy" concludes at Pyramid Lake near Reno, a landscape of geometrical tufa formations that he describes as "almost mystical."
But beyond an authentic evocation of place, Barnes' writing tells the truth about difficult issues. His decade in law enforcement provided ample fodder for storytelling. As a cop, says Barnes, "it's amazing the kind of intimate contact you have with people. They'll open up to you like a father confessor." He was haunted by the things he saw -- like a 16-year-old boy, bleeding from a gunshot wound to the chest, who'd had a fender-bender in the family car and tried to kill himself rather than face his father's wrath. "It makes you think about the family dynamics, what it must have been like for that kid," says Barnes.
His upcoming novel, Car Tag (due in November from Virginia Avenue Press), tells the story of three estranged brothers who are drawn together when one of them kills a cop and ends up on death row. "It raises questions about when the death penalty is justified," says Barnes. "It also looks at how a family holds grudges, how they don't even know why they've become disaffected from each other."
Barnes sees an enormous potential for untapped literary resources in his home state. "I really think that the parts that have to be explored about Nevada are the parts in between -- the trailer communities out in the middle of nowhere," he says. "Maybe these little places are the last vestiges of the Old West, where the maverick spirit that first brought people here still exists; I'd like to think that they're populated by people who embrace the idea of escaping the shackles of life in urban and suburban settings."
He is planning to write a series of short stories set in those tiny rural towns. "Who knows how many people struggled through trying to make it, to find their gold mines there?" says Barnes. "And there are still people trying to do so today, to find their gold mine."
Editor's note: Caleb Cage is on the board of directors of the nonprofit Virginia Avenue Press. HCN Managing Editor Jodi Peterson contributed to this profile.© High Country News