24/7: Living It Up and Doubling Down in the New Las Vegas , by Andrés Martinez. Villard Books, 352 pages, $25.
The Real Las Vegas: Life Beyond the Strip , edited by David Littlejohn. Oxford University Press, 306 pages, $30.
In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance , by David Thomson. Alfred A. Knopf, 330 pages, $27.50.
Andrés Martinez, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal , cooked up a clever way to land a $50,000 book deal. He said to a publisher: Handmea50-grandadvance,andI’llgambleit away in Las Vegas. Then I’ll write a book about it. The publisher (Villard) agreed.
This may seem an absurd premise for a book, but then isn’t Vegas an absurd idea for a major American city? Las Vegas has been for some time America’s fastest-growing city (with more hotel rooms than anywhere else on Earth); Nevada is the fastest-growing state in the union. And since gambling has now spread to riverfront cities and Indian reservations throughout the country, everyone is turning to Vegas for diagnosis and prophecy. We may disagree about Las Vegas’ metaphoric value and “meaning”; we may disagree about the practical lessons taught by its sprawl, its architecture and its gambling-based economy–but the one point on which we all emphatically agree is that this city needs to be examined. Though there is already a vast library on the subject, these three new books argue that Las Vegas has mutated so quickly that the library needs renovation–or perhaps a total overhaul.
The question is: What’s the best method or genre for describing this strange place? Mr. Martinez’s response may seem as good an answer as any. Las Vegas is a visceral experience, so why not evoke it through a highly detailed report from the front lines of a monthlong gambling session? The result, 24/7 , is the easygoing confession of a man who loses about $45,000 in 150 hours of blackjack, baccarat, roulette and craps. Though the book’s precursor is Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), the scenery has changed utterly. Much of Mr. Martinez’s effort is spent revealing the “new” Las Vegas: less the seedy 1970′s outpost, slowly shedding its Mob past, than the magnificently refashioned theme park of today. Thus, though he visits such older casinos as the Desert Inn and the Golden Gate, he shows the real action to be at the newer palaces: the Luxor, New York-New York and the Bellagio–and the clean sidewalks and escalator overpasses that connect them.
The best parts of 24/7 involve the play-by-play of gambling, like this portrait of the baccarat pit, where wealthy Chinese businessmen congregate to wager obscene sums of money: “When Mr. J. was dealt the cards … he produced a purple marble, with which he’d tap the cards before turning them over. This was a mild eccentricity compared to the protracted shenanigans that took place at the other end of the table before the cards were unveiled. The C.’s and K.’s would check out how many ‘sides’ each card had, pound the table, rub the cards on the green felt, scream, ‘San bin!’ … and often tear up the cards in disgust.”
24/7 is less persuasive when it tackles larger themes like the growth of Las Vegas, the ecological impact on the desert, Dostoevsky and the social hazards of gambling. And Mr. Martinez would be well advised to omit some of the more expendable details. When Dickens said that “facts alone are wanted in life,” I doubt he had this in mind: “I read up on Death Valley over a hot-and-sour soup and some Mongolian beef. Then I ambled across the attractions level to the Swensen’s in the food court and bought myself some raspberry sorbet on a waffle cone.”
Is Mr. Martinez’s Vegas–full of complimentary weekends at the Luxor, high-stakes roulette and raspberry sorbet–the real Las Vegas? David Littlejohn would answer No. For Mr. Littlejohn, professor emeritus of journalism at Berkeley and editor of The Real Las Vegas , that elusive sphere lies somewhere beyond Caesars Palace and the Bellagio. To find it, he led a team of 15 reporters from the Berkeley graduate program in journalism to “the city in which 1.2 million Las Vegans actually live, beyond the Strip and Downtown.” If Mr. Martinez’s precursor is Hunter Thompson, Mr. Littlejohn’s is clearly Robert Venturi, who led a team of Yale architecture students to Las Vegas and wrote Learning From Las Vegas (1972).
The Real Las Vegas is not nearly as urgent, and not as convincing, as Learning from Las Vegas , which was half a manifesto about postmodern urbanization and half a celebration of American vernacular architecture. Mr. Venturi’s work had the feel of a unified whole, whereas The Real Las Vegas is a disjointed collection of essays about various facets of life in Las Vegas: the Hispanic community, the labor scene, pawnshops, the homeless. These glimpses rarely show Las Vegas to be much different from other American cities. And while that is to some degree the point of this book–that Las Vegas bears more similarity to “normal” urban America than we may want to acknowledge–we find ourselves mired in the familiar Vegas paradox. Is this the quintessential American city, based on excess, speculation and the grotesque, with an immense infrastructure, school system and suburban belt? Or is Las Vegas forever unique, exceptional even, because it is rooted in that strangest form of commerce?
Two essays in The Real Las Vegas stand apart. The first, Jenna Ward’s “Water for the Desert Miracle,” is perhaps the best condensed explanation of Las Vegas’ irrigation schemes, which are just as byzantine as those Jake Gittes uncovered in the Los Angeles of Chinatown . And Maia Hansen’s “Skin City” is an engaging sketch of the “sex industry” in Las Vegas and the surrounding area. If you’ve ever wondered whether johns adapt their fantasies to the topographical situation of the whorehouse (there are still several legal brothels in Nevada), Ms. Hansen can clue you in: “One girl she knew had a guy pay her $5,000 to walk him naked through the desert with a collar and leash, like a camel.”
The best new book on Las Vegas is neither Mr. Martinez’s nor Mr. Littlejohn’s, but David Thomson’s In Nevada . (Mr. Thomson is well known for his writing on cinema: He has written about Orson Welles and David Selznick; his magnum opus is A Biographical Dictionary of Film .) But though In Nevada engages Las Vegas as forcefully as 24/7 or The Real Las Vegas , the book’s compass is not limited to the city. Mr. Thomson is in love with the vast space of Nevada, its Western mythologies and all of its idiosyncrasies and grotesqueries. He addresses the new Las Vegas of the Bellagio and the suburban housing developments, but he writes most passionately about the empty miles of the north, the Lake Tahoe coastline in the west, and the nuclear waste containers of the Nevada Test Site in the center of the state, not far north of Las Vegas.
In Nevada ‘s own precursor is John McPhee’s Basin and Range , a gently muted lovesong to the geology of northern Nevada. But though it digs into red rock and sediment, In Nevada veers more often toward the manmade. Mr. Thomson is one part John McPhee and three parts Don DeLillo. His obsessions with the Nevada Test Site–especially the fabled Area 51, alleged repository of nuclear waste and alien species–are elaborated with the paranoid intensity of Underworld . “The Government has always regarded Nevada as a place unlike others,” he writes, “fit for tests, experiments and ventures it would sometimes rather not talk about. And so the state that has had a special appeal to loners, libertarians and anarchists is also a playground of the Federal Government.”
Mr. Thomson’s prose reads like a long inducement to hypnosis. His lulling voice persuades us that eclectic statistics and odd rumors, when woven together, form a transcendent unity. Thus, “Nevada” is not a political entity with cities, laws and universities, but instead a maelstrom of anthrax conspiracies, storage facilities for surveillance tapes from Vegas casinos, fantasies for a statue to Bugsy Siegel, an immense desert crater forged by a nuclear blast–all evoked by Mr. Thomson in his highly stylized, deceptively calm manner. Lurking behind his prose, barely hidden by the awe in which he holds this strange and mostly empty state, is a conviction that Nevada is the last refuge for American individualism. Mr. Thomson’s triumph is that he situates the wonderful accident of Las Vegas within the larger context of Nevada, and reveals the city’s slot machines to be just one manifestation of a greater American phantasmagoria.