A habitual gambler recounts a life of bad decisions in sports books and corporate embezzlement, and the effect it had on his family.
No one’s saying Dennis Hart had it easy. A father at 17 with an unstable girlfriend and bills to pay, he shelved his nascent college career to begin life in the working world. There—facing dire straits that many of us have encountered at one time or another—Hart gave in to the first of many opportunities to bend the law and profit while doing so. From there, despite his lack of formal training, Hart was skilled enough as an accountant to land jobs in numerous financial departments at mid-sized companies. When he and two colleagues began their own precious-metals company (and Hart began a separate travel agency), he developed the means and the structure to begin cashing illegal checks to support his gambling habit. His sports bets—and the Hollywood-named hustlers who are on his tail—continue to multiply while he draws money from his companies and conceals the misdeeds on the balance sheet. As Hart juggles this downward-spiraling mélange of family, lawyers, hustlers and hit men, Hart’s readers will feel the stress once corporate managers finally notice the balance sheet irregularities. The inherent suspense throughout contrasts well with Hart’s candid and effortless writing style; he recounts every mistake from a refreshingly honest and self-effacing perspective. What may strike readers most is the ultimately tragic nature of Hart’s story. A handsome, intelligent, charismatic man, he seemed to have the world at his feet. But a series of bad decisions and weakened resistance to temptation sent him down a path that twisted toward lifelong infamy. In a moment of bleak anguish, Hart describes his future wife agreeing to a first date with him: “It would prove to be the worst decision she ever made.” In the end, perhaps Hart’s greatest victory is keeping his wife, his dream of Florida and his readers on his side.
Recommended both as a suspenseful story and a cautionary tale of yielding to temptation.
Interview with Dennis Hart
Today I’m happy to introduce Dennis Hart, author of a true crime novel that tells the story surrounding his gambling addiction and the embezzlement of millions of dollars. I met Dennis several years ago on a writer’s critique site, where I had the pleasure of first reading Life Minus 3 1/2. I loved it then, and I’m so excited it’s finally in print.
Dennis figures he wagered in the neighborhood of thirty-five million dollars over seven years with up to six bookies. He says he won somewhere around twelve million and lost around twenty-three million. If that boggles your mind, wait until you read the rest of the story. It’s truly a gripping novel that you won’t want to put down.
Dennis, I know you’re a social media virgin, so let’s try to get you started. On Twitter, each post has to be under 140 characters, including spaces. So…how would you describe Life Minus 3 1/2 in a tweet?
I’m not currently in the tweetersphere because I’m sure people don’t give a crap what I’m doing every second of the day. But if you were to dangle a bag of M&M’s for an answer, I’d say: Life is one man’s plunge from obscurity to ignominy by way of a need to gain acceptance from family & friends & a whole lot in between.
140 exactly. Woohoo. See? You can tweet with the best of them. Life Minus 3 1/2 is the true story of someone you know very well. Do you plan to identify who the main character is?
I’m not sure I know the main character very well, but I can tell you (spoiler alert) his name and my name are the same.
What a coincidence. I heard your daughter encouraged you to write this book. What are your feelings now that it’s out there in the world?
When I finished the first draft, I decided it would make an excellent booster seat for my grandchildren. It was only after I joined a writer’s forum and offered my work for critique that I realized writing was becoming a passion for me. Life Minus 3 1/2 leaves me naked to the reader and allows people to judge me for good or bad. That doesn’t quite reconcile with my introverted personality. However, the driving force was always simple: Would my story help someone traveling a similar path or highlight the warning signs to a spouse or other family member? I hope it does and that alone trumps whatever uneasiness I feel about leaving my dirty laundry out there for all to read.
Naked? My copy didn't come with pictures. Never mind. I believe you cut a lot from your original manuscript. Was it like cutting off an appendage to trim your word count?
Sorry…Life is not a picture book. You’ll have to use your fifty-shades-of-gray imagination. I did cut a lot, Amy, and yes partially to keep the word count down so the eventual book could be lifted. In writing a memoir, I fell into the trap of telling the story from the beginning, which for me was conception. A literary agent suggested I dispense of my childhood activities and get right to the meat of the story. Originally, I thought it best to lay the groundwork to answer the eventual question, “Why did he end up like that?” However, I learned I would better serve the reader by jumping right into the action instead of building a foundation.
Maybe you can write a prequel after Life becomes a bestseller. Tell us about one scene you cut that you wish you could have left in.
That’s interesting, Amy, because I did research on my parents and grandparents to see if I had inherited any compulsive behaviors. While doing the research, I learned about my grandparents’ escape from Armenia during the Ottoman Holocaust that killed a million Armenians. It was a compelling scene, but in the end it was deemed irrelevant to my story.
I smell not only a prequel but a spin off. What do you think? But back to this book: it has drama, action, suspense, and humor. A lot of humor. Was the humor therapeutic when writing the book, included to lighten the story, or is it just indicative of how you think?
A shrink might answer yes, but the truth is no, it wasn’t therapeutic. The reason is simple—even in my darkest hours I created humor. Now you may think I probably laugh at funerals too, but I feel my inner defensive mechanisms rummaged for the absurd to offset the effects of my bad luck and trouble magnets.
You gotta either laugh or cry, and I admire your ability to laugh under the darkest of circumstances. Your personality really comes out in your writing. I think it’s one of the things that make this book such a compelling read. Life involves the mob, the FBI, gambling addiction, near-death scenes, disappointing your family, divorce, embezzlement, and prison. Which was the hardest to write about?
I’d say disappointing my family. The mob, the FBI, the gambling etc was all noise—loud noise, no doubt. But being a failure was the hardest to admit and write about. It is a prominent scar that lingers long after the other noises dissipate.
I’m one of those who believes everything happens for a reason. It can be said that the events in Life led to you becoming a writer. Do you agree? Does that make all you went through worth it?
Well, that would be one heck of a practical joke to go through the events in Life just to end up on the other side as a writer. I tend to agree with you though, and in several instances in the book it actually comes into play. I often ask myself, if I hadn’t left behind Santa’s bells, would we even be having this conversation? So yes, some things happen for a reason, but in the overall picture, I caused too much pain to my family for it ever to be considered worth it.
What advice would you give to someone struggling with a gambling addiction right now?
Read Life Minus 3 1/2. I can only show by example. My situation was unique in that my life was constantly in a vice. But if I had a mentor or a guide early on before it became too late, who knows what might have happened. If you read Life, you will walk with me as I unravel, but you will also see the light of redemption. If I had the foresight to see the results of my actions years before they happened, I question whether the outcome would’ve been the same. So Life is the foresight I wish I had, and hopefully it can serve others.
That’s a noble and brave motivation for writing the book. And I think it’s the proverbial turning lemons into lemonade. Your own experience was horrible, but by writing about it, you will help other people. That’s not too shabby, Dennis. Tell us about your favorite scene in the book.
I have many favorite scenes, but because my life lists toward the insane side, I like the chapter Good Cop, Bad Cop...Same Cop. I wanted so badly to mess with the polygraph that my magnets were on a sugar-high to get me in trouble.
Can you tell us a little bit about your bad luck and trouble magnets?
I can’t speak for them, they won’t let me. But I can reveal that these inherent dweebs, trouble and bad luck, have loitered in my head since childhood. They’ve consistently found mischief to tempt me, or hailed a bully to challenge.
They certainly hailed a lot in Life. What song would you pick to go with your book?
I’m sure there are a few tunes out there that would capture the essence of a man circling the drain. My preference would be something from Sesame Street.
You mean, like The Rubber Ducky Song?
No, maybe: Will.i.am’s “What I Am?”
"Everyone Makes Mistakes", sung by Big Bird?
Oh! I know! Because of your ex-wife and ex-in-laws:"Martian Cutie", sung/written/animated, appropriately enough, by Bud Luckey!
Maybe Bert’s "In My Book" would be appropriate.
Any of those?
Okay, enough of this foolishness. On to more foolishness. Who would you pick to play the main character in a movie version of Life?
Hmmm…I can see Mark Wahlberg. Say, you’ve written an action/adventure book about a private citizen out to stop some very bad people, a humorous book about a man who only wants to be a hermit but gets mixed up with a hit man, and a true crime novel. Which is your favorite genre to write?
I’m being pushed toward humor. Every time I try to write something serious, I find something humorous tagging along. It’s a curse because I don’t think I’m funny. It’s those magnets messing with me.
Oh good grief. Magnets, or no magnets, you’re one of the funniest people I know. And I know a lot of funny people. Well, at least a few. If we were to have dinner together, I doubt I’d eat because I’d be too busy laughing. Which author would you most like to invite to dinner, and what would you fix me? I mean, him. Or her.
Okay, we’ll grab a bite after this interview, and I promise you won’t laugh once. As far as other famous people, I’d invite Carl Hiaasen to talk crazy humor and fix him some American Chop Suey. Then I’d invite Nelson DeMille and talk about the art of sarcastic interaction within a thriller and serve him Prime Rib. Then I’d invite Amy Metz and tell her what I’ve learned over a bowl of Haagen-Daz.
Wait. DeMille gets prime rib, and I get ice cream? Is that just because he’s a bestselling author, or do you really like his books best? No, don’t answer that. I’ll take what I can get. What book are you currently reading and in what format (e-book/paperback/hardcover)?
It’s more fun to have ice cream with me than to have prime rib.
I'm reading The Panther by Nelson DeMille (hardcover)
I thought maybe you’d say you were re-reading Murder & Mayhem In Goose Pimple Junction. Oh well. I’m used to rejection. Critiques, reviews, criticism: all part of a writer’s life. How do you handle criticism of your work?
I did re-read Murder and Mayhem, and I love how you ended up hiding the key. I await the sequel.
It depends on the criticism. I’m always open to constructive advice, and I welcome it with open arms. It is a great way to learn. Nasty criticism angers me, and I start looking for blunt objects.
Or the cherry tomatoes. Gosh, I love that scene in Life. You live near Boston. Tell us one weird thing, one nice thing, and one fact about where you live.
Or cherry tomatoes, yes. A lot of tomatoes are thrown in my books. Poor Jason in Gulf Boulevard is throwing them too. I guess I need to consult my shrink about this.
Weird: I live in Massachusetts-a one party state.
Nice: Cape Cod.
Fact: The Big Dig was the biggest rip-off ever to the American taxpayer.
Good to know. Do you ever get writer’s block?
I never get writer’s block. If I get writer’s pause, I simply read over the chapter I’m in and for some reason it inspires new ideas or scenes which carries me forward. In addition, I never sleep. Most of my scenes are developed while I’m trying to sleep, so I’m forced to get up and write down stuff. My best material presents itself when head meets pillow.
It’s that trouble magnet at work again, no doubt. What’s one of your favorite quotes?
“Never miss a good chance to shut up.” ~ Will Rogers
I love it! Going to remember that one. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I have a vegetable garden that serves a multitude of animals at harvest time. I consider it a success if I get one ear of corn without squirrel scratches, a head of lettuce that the rabbits haven’t nibbled on, or a handful of grape tomatoes without chipmunk bites. Aside from that, I run my own business; ride my Can Am Roadster; read a lot and dream of books I will write that people will never read.
Don’t be so sure. And thank you for being so good to the wildlife of Massachusetts. I hear your novel, Gulf Boulevard, was recently picked up by an agent. Congratulations. Last question: What are you working on now?
The sequel to Gulf Boulevard titled, Gulf Boulevard-Postcards from the World.
Okay, I lied. This is the last question: Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Postcards picks up with our hero Jason continuing the story in first person, present tense, after the murder of his obnoxious neighbor, Sal the hitman, on his beach by Fiona, the hitwoman, Jason’s ex-love interest. Convoluted? Of course. In the sequel, the other mafia types come after Jason for information, a drug cartel invades Sand Key where Jason is trying his best to become a hermit, and a whole bunch of other crazy characters turn Jason’s idyllic paradise into a humorous adventure.
I have read Gulf Boulevard and loved it, so I can’t wait to read the sequel. I hope you'll come back when it's published. Thank you, Dennis, for answering all of my annoying questions. You’re a patient man. Go treat yourself to a bag of M&Ms. And best wishes with Life Minus 3 1/2.
Dennis Hart is the owner of an environmental equipment rental company in Massachusetts. He is married, with four children and four grandchildren. An active member of a writer’s forum since 2010 called “The Next Big Writer,” his work has been well received and critiqued by other authors. His memoir, Life Minus 3½, was ranked number one for several weeks out of hundreds of submissions. In a separate writing contest judged by published authors, the memoir was selected third best out of 427 entries. It has also received a recommended review by KIRKUS.
His full-length novels include Gulf Boulevard, which is currently under representation, Pictures of Children, Flight of the Owl, and his short stories include Storms, Bandits, and Heat Wave. He is currently working on the sequel to Gulf Boulevard titled Gulf Boulevard-Postcards from the World.
Life Minus 3 1/2 by Dennis Hart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Life Minus 3 1/2 is one of my favorite books. Ever. This true story of a man in the grips of a gambling addiction, who embezzles over eleven million dollars, and gets mixed up with the mob and the FBI, is a fascinating tale told with honesty, grit, and humor. Dennis Hart does not attempt to glorify what happened. He simply narrates a time in his life that started out of a need to please his family and friends. Time and time again, he's sure he can gamble and win enough to pay thousands of dollars back to his bookie. The thousands turn into hundreds of thousands, eventually millions, and to cover the bets, Dennis embezzles from his workplace, fully intending to pay the money back once he scores that big win.
Add a teenage marriage (which he likens to an alien abduction,) crazy parents-in law (the mothership,) a failed marriage (it dissolved faster than an ice cube on an open fire pit,) a crazy ex-wife (the alien,) an early career mistake (a result of his trouble and bad luck magnets,) and you get a tired, dejected young father of two (and eventually four) who is desperately trying to prove himself.
Through Hart's narration, the reader sees how easy it is to get sucked into a gambling addiction. We see the stress of his keeping his addiction and theft from his family and his workplace. We see him getting further and further buried under debt and fear. But what makes this story such a compelling read is Hart's innate humor. He relays danger, drama, melodrama, and suspense, but he peppers all of it with his wonderful sense of humor. The man is flat out funny. He doesn't make light of the situations, but he shows us there is humor in everything, even the darkest of moments.
This book sucked me in. It's a nail biting, pound your chair, laugh out loud story of one man's mistakes and his redemption. I couldn't put it down.
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