After living in Las Vegas for nearly a year, I decided to better acquaint myself with the city through my favorite medium: books. I came across Literary Las Vegas, an anthology edited by Mike Tronnes and published in 1995. The collection includes some famous pieces, such as Tom Wolfe’s great 1964 profile and the Circus Circus section of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as well as plenty of lesser-known works. The collection is extremely uneven, but gives a great overview of Las Vegas’ place in the popular imagination from the ’50s through the ’90s.
The most interesting thing is how it made me, as a relatively new transplant, feel so much like a local, and mostly not for good reasons. Most the collection can be tiresome, as it seems like at least half the pieces follow the same format of cynical journalist visiting the city and making an observation about its vulgarity and moral bankruptcy saying something important about American culture. This genre can be brilliant, as both Wolfe and Thompson demonstrate, but later attempts quickly devolve into cynical faux intellectualism. The worst of these are Richard Meltzer’s “Who’ll Stop the Wayne?” and Merrill Markoe’s “Viva Las Wine Goddesses.” Anyone who lives here, even if you’re new like me, will be annoyed by the city once again being reduced to its basest stereotypes. It is amazing that a collection of writing about Las Vegas could include so many writers so committed to having as little fun as possible here.
The intellectual bankruptcy of these pieces is further illustrated by the intelligent writers who decide to accept Las Vegas on its own terms. One highlight is Noel Coward’s “Nescafe Society,” which consists of diary entries from his famous month-long cabaret engagement at the Sands in 1955. Like Nabokov, Coward seems to have an appreciation of American vulgarity that only a European aristocrat could have.
For a new transplant, the best parts of the collection are the bits of history and lore. Though the stories of Bugsy Siegel and the atomic tests get repeated ad infinitum, we also get an honest memoir by Susan Berman about growing up as a mobster’s daughter; an oral history of the bizarre story of Melvin Dummar, who claimed to have rescued Howard Hughes in the desert and been left millions in Hughes’ will; and a story about black performers playing segregated casinos in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Those pieces treat Las Vegas first and foremost as a real place, not as a metaphor or a symbol of some point the writer wants to make about taste or American culture.
This is a book that desperately needs to be re-edited and updated. Since it was published in 1995, the collection leaves off with Las Vegas in its family-friendly theme park stage, as represented by the last piece, Marc Cooper’s “Searching for Sin City and Finding Disney in the Desert.” This is a bad way for the collection to end, not only because it once again repeats the “cynical journalist in Vegas” bit and adds nothing new to it, but because, in Las Vegas time, 1995 seems like ancient history. And there has been a lot of great writing about Las Vegas since then that creates a more fully realized picture of the city. Here are my nominations for an updated anthology of great writing about Las Vegas. This is far from a comprehensive list, and I encourage readers to add to it.
Dave Hickey, “A Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz” (from Air Guitar)
Reading the cliché-ridden pieces in Literary Las Vegas, I was desperately missing Hickey’s brilliant insights on the city. With him leaving for Albuquerque, there has been a lot of ink spilled over his legacy in Vegas, and while it would have been nice for him to produce some work of substance over the last decade in order to justify his six-figure UNLV salary, his pieces on Las Vegas in Air Guitar still stand up as some of the greatest writing ever about the city. “A Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz” is the greatest and most celebrated of these, as he turns a visit to the Liberace Museum into a treatise on class and taste and the politics of the closet. It also contains one of Hickey’s most famous lines, which could be adopted as a city motto: “Bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege.” Hickey’s fierce intelligence and embrace of the city expose the fatuousness of denunciations of Las Vegas by the self-styled intellectuals in Literary Las Vegas.
David Foster Wallace, “Big Red Son” (from Consider the Lobster)
Foster Wallace’s report on the Adult Video News Awards and the “Adult Software” section of the Consumer Electronics Show, originally written under a pseudonym for the movie magazine Premiere in 1998, isn’t about Las Vegas per se, but in taking on one of our more notorious events as part of a larger examination of the porn industry, “Big Red Son” does tell us a lot about Vegas. His description of the AVN Awards, held in an opulent ballroom at Caesars Palace but featuring terrible food and overpriced drinks served by waiters who don’t speak English and only do the job in order to get their pictures taken with naked porn stars, perfectly capture the contradictions of the Strip experience, where glamour mixes with sleaze and transgression becomes mainstreamed.
Bill Simmons, “Destructive Things With No Guilt” (From ESPN.com)
ESPN columnist Simmons made his name by pioneering an informal style that covered sports from the fan’s perspective and quickly expanded out from sports to cover all aspects of modern “guy” culture, in particular the modern strain of overgrown frat boy whomt Las Vegas appealed to over the last decade. His many dispatches from Las Vegas set the template for the cliché of the modern Vegas bachelor party that would be immortalized in The Hangover. This entry from 2004, which finds Simmons and his buddies dealing with impending middle age and Las Vegas’ overexposure as guys’ weekend destination, is the high point of his Vegas columns. The relentless guy talk can get tiresome, but Simmons has a great eye for the small details of vacationing in Las Vegas, from the unintentional comedy of Saturday morning breakfast buffets to the joy of being able to afford your own bed. It is the antithesis of the cynical “journalist in Vegas” story, and while it isn’t very deep, it does attempt to capture the Vegas experience as most tourists experience it (or at least envision it).
James Ellroy, Chapter 1 of The Cold Six Thousand
The Cold Six Thousand, the middle book of Ellroy’s trilogy of novels about ‘60s political intrigue, is perhaps the consummate Las Vegas novel, even though only part of the action takes place here. In this book, Las Vegas becomes the crossroads of Ellroy’s various convoluted conspiracy theories. It also introduced Ellroy’s greatest portrayal of twisted masculinity in Wayne Tedrow Jr., a cop with a stepmother obsession and a penchant for killing black suspects, whose father is a Mormon bigshot and right-wing lunatic.
Michael Lewis, “Spiderman at the Venetian” (from The Big Short)
A book hoping to represent modern Las Vegas would have to address the economic crisis and our city’s central role in it, and Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, the definitive book written so far on the subprime mortgage crisis, includes a wonderfully representative Vegas set piece. Lewis documents a convention of subprime mortgage lenders at the Venetian, where the lenders party while the fruit of their labors is evident in the mounting number of foreclosed homes just a few miles away.
David Boyles is a Ph.D. student in the UNLV English Department, where he studies Shakespeare and tries to teach freshmen to write. He is performance editor of The Shakespeare Standard and also blogs occasionally at ArtsVegas.