By Richard Abowitz
A book on Vegas that is not a tourist guide is still a novelty. While many cities boast a great literary tradition, Vegas is still best known from the decades-old tourist experience of one Hunter S. Thompson. That book set the standard for the way Vegas has been used as symbol. There is a straight line between Thompson’s chronicles of copious drug use to President Obama’s injunction against blowing your college tuition in Vegas. The real Las Vegas is not an issue to either man, only the symbol. And symbols are the stuff of fiction.
Perhaps uniquely in the world, fiction, poetry and drama risk being one disguise too many in a city that already possesses a fairy tale castle. Thompson was cagey about what was fact and what was fiction. Smart move.
For now the great Vegas novel has neither been written nor seriously attempted. So far, the most significant books on Vegas have been overwhelmingly those that try to sort the myth from the reality. Here are the ones you should know about.
Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs and Binion’s World Series of Poker by James McManus (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).
A fiction writer, poet and award-winning sports journalist, McManus chose to take on Las Vegas as himself. There to cover the World Series of Poker, McManus even throws that shield away by entering the tournament. This book helped ignite the poker craze, and McManus mastered the art of turning hands into narrative. The writing about the Ted Binion murder trial not only seems extraneous but shows its age. But in the poker parts, McManus captures the excitement of Vegas, the spark that ignites into a city of neon.
In Black and White: The life of Sammy Davis Jr. by Wil Haygood. (Knopf, 2003)
Besides being a member of the Rat Pack, Davis helped define Vegas entertainment. His rise parallels the growth of Vegas as he outgrows his father Will Masten’s vaudeville era and enters into our current one of pop-culture celebrity. His story also helps illuminate attempts to integrate the Strip and offers insight into the underexplored black experience in Vegas.
Beautiful Children by Charles Bock (Random House, 2008)
This debut novel got about as much attention as any fiction ever published about Las Vegas. Yet, to call this a Vegas novel is a bit misleading. This gawky, earnest, overlong book is a domestic novel centered on a missing child merely set in Vegas. As one of the few Vegas natives to write a book on his hometown, Bock takes his setting for granted. The fact that no one seemed to notice that Sin City hardly ranks minor character-status speaks to the void where serious efforts at Vegas fiction should be.
Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century by Hal Rothman (Routledge, 2002)
Probably the single most serious sustained thought put into the subject of what makes Las Vegas special. Rothman traces the city’ spectacular growth, arguing that the combination of a service economy with a desire for lived experience make this a model city. Rothman also looks at the issues caused by being a community of migrants when he switches to the first person to recount his efforts to found a synagogue. The one-word topic missing from Rothman’s masterful book is the possibility of Future World misfiring into recession. Rothman’s premature passing deprives us of the chance to glean his insight into our current moment.
In Nevada by David Thomson (Knopf, 1999)
A San Francisco film critic, Thomson was an unlikely choice for a book on driving through Nevada. Nonetheless, Thomson’s book is one of the few efforts to see Las Vegas as part of Nevada’s own special qualities instead of an aberration in an otherwise typical Western state. Much of the book finds Thomson ruminating while passing through Nevada emptiness, but all of this leads to many of the climactic final chapters set in Vegas. The recently published About a Mountain by John D’Agata employs a similar approach, using the Yucca Mountain debacle to examine the unreality of Vegas.
Casino-Ology by Bill Zender (Huntington Press, 2008)
How many hands should a good dealer play in an hour? How do you analyze a customer’s play? How do you turn around a distressed casino? Bill Zender examines these questions in this remarkable book that sees Vegas through the eyes of the house. Dry writing perhaps, but an essential glimpse behind the cash cage at the heart of the Strip.