Reading ‘Literary Las Vegas’

By David Boyles

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.

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5 Comments

Filed under Nonfiction

5 responses to “Reading ‘Literary Las Vegas’

  1. Scott Dickensheets

    Thought-provoking piece; you had me at “Dave Hickey” (although you nearly lost me again at “Bill Simmons”). Let me be the first to suggest that there’s probably a canonical chunk of Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children that should be included, and possibly a bit of Joe McGinniss Jr.’s The Delivery Man, despite its more mixed reception. James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street comes strongly to mind, too. Maybe a mixed double of Time cover stories — Kurt Andersen’s perky piece from 1994 and Joel Stein’s economic biopsy from last year? And, however self-servingly, “Can’t Smile Without You,” a lovely piece of essay journalism by Stacy J. Willis (from the Las Vegas Weekly) about a down-and-out Barry Manilow obsessive.

    Personally, it doesn’t bother me much when writers use Vegas as a pretext to “say something important about American culture”; that transmutation is kinda what I want from literary writing. (Seeing the familiar reinterpreted is fun, but then, I’ve lived here 30 years.) It’s probably what the readership outside of Vegas wants too, rather than writing that “treat(s) Vegas first and foremost as a real place.” They want the tawdry mythology, and in truth, this city’s unending versatility as a symbol of desire/consumption/license/whatever is a lot of what keeps this book from reading like Literary Phoenix.

    We’re in total agreement on the Markoe piece, by the way.

    Thanks again for writing this. Something to think about.

  2. Thanks for the great response, Scott. Sorry it has taken me so long to respond. Thanks for the great suggestions, I haven’t read most of them so I’ll definitely add them to my reading list (and I’m kicking myself for completely forgetting about Beautiful Children).

    And I think your point about no one wanting to read something like “Literary Phoenix” is a good one (especially since I just moved here from Phoenix), but my problem isn’t necessarily with people using Vegas to say something about the culture, it is with people using Vegas to say something hackneyed and trite and pass it off as original. Among self-styled intellectuals, Vegas is easy shorthand for all they dislike about America. That’s fine, but it is only one perspective and gets multiplied by the echo chamber of the urban archipelago that these writers inhabit. One reason I included Simmons is, despite his flaws as a writer, he captures an experience of Vegas that is shared by plenty of people and I think it is just as important to understand that idea of Vegas.

  3. Geoff Schumacher

    A passage from H. Lee Barnes’ “The Lucky” would be a nice addition to a new edition of “Literary Las Vegas.” Sadly, Barnes’ novel, inspired by some real-life Las Vegas characters, especially Benny Binion, has not been widely read, but it’s deserving of a larger audience. Another worthy excerpt could be found in James Phelan’s “Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years.” Phelan was a workmanlike journalistic stylist, but his report on Hughes’ years holed up in the penthouse of the Desert Inn makes for compelling reading. Another thought would be to excise a Las Vegas section from Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.” I have not read Tim Powers’ fantasy novel, “Last Call,” but I’ve been told by more than one person that it’s a great offbeat look at Las Vegas. If I were compiling something like this, I know I would have to include some writing by Paul Ralli. Ralli was a Las Vegas lawyer in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s who caught the writing bug and produced two books (that I know of) of, essentially, memoir about his life in Las Vegas: “Nevada Lawyer,” published in 1946, and “Viva Vegas,” published in 1953. The books are not easy to find. They are out of print. But that’s exactly why it would be cool to include a few excerpts. They may be the first books of their kind set in Las Vegas. Last but not least, I would suggest Ed Reid’s “Las Vegas: City Without Clocks” (1961). Reid, soon after, went down in history as the co-author of “The Green Felt Jungle,” the Las Vegas mob exposé that’s still technically in print. “City Without Clocks” is more interesting, I think. Here’s just one bit that I like from it: “There is a never-ending metallic tinkle in this fantastic city — the sound of silver dollars sliding through the quick fingers of the dealers and gamblers at the tables. It is a melodious theme and never ends, never rises or fades away. It is a babbling brook, running and tumbling about one’s ears, getting lost in the desert which holds Las Vegas in the palm of its yellow hand.” Purple? You bet!

    • Katherine Ralli Romberg

      Thank you Mr. Schumacher for mentioning my uncle’s books. They indeed fit into this category of books and paint a fairly clear picture of Vegas in the early years.
      Kathy Ralli

  4. Fantastic website. Lots of helpful info here. I’m sending it to several
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