Fool Me Once: Hustlers, Hookers, Headliners, and How Not to Get Screwed in Vegas (St. Martin’s Griffin, $16) by Rick Lax isn’t exactly what it appears to be. And that’s both good and bad, maybe even a little ironic. Out-of-towners might pick up the book thinking it’s a guide for surviving Sin City. Instead, Lax, a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly, has delivered a memoir that chronicles his move to Las Vegas and his obsession with avoiding deception. Fans of his previous effort, Lawyer Boy: A Case Study in Growing Up (St. Martin’s Press, 2008), a comic account of his years at DePaul University College of Law, will not be disappointed, but readers unfamiliar with his byline might secretly wish for less Lax and more practical insight about the “Entertainment Capital of the World.”
After graduating law school (and ending a bad relationship), Lax forgoes backpacking through Europe and heads to Las Vegas with his mother for a short vacation. Fool Me Once gets going once Lax hits the Strip. He encounters some chatty prostitutes and a crooked three-card monte game (is there any other kind?) and quickly realizes he’s afraid of being conned himself. To protect himself from becoming an unwitting dupe, Lax decides to explore Las Vegas from the inside out.
Fool Me Once is filled with entertaining stories about Lax finding a roommate (Oxana, a Russian dancer), learning how to get past choosy bouncers, hanging out with magicians, and discussing tips on picking up women from a master pickup artist. He gets kicked out of a casino for winning too much money, develops a crush on a female bartender, wonders if hypnosis is just a gag, and spends some time disguised as an 80-year-old man. Along the way, Lax alternates his anecdotes with quotes from psychologists, sociologists, economists, magicians, strippers and prostitutes.
The “art of deception in Las Vegas” premise is a good one, especially from an outsider’s point-of-view. Except Lax doesn’t come across as an outsider. Halfway through Fool Me Once, it occurred to me that perhaps Lax was just a little too slick, someone who might carry a stack of his own books into a crowded bar and send signed copies over to pretty women in lieu of drinks.
Truth is, Lax is no wide-eyed innocent, no hick from the sticks. He discovered magic as a teenager and has performed magic for two and a half decades. He is a decent card counter who usually comes out ahead at the gambling tables, and he does not seem to repel women. He has a good sense of humor, and no trouble putting together readable sentences. For those reasons, Fool Me Once will most likely resonate with Vegas locals more than anybody else. Lax, a Chicago transplant, seemed right at home before he even unpacked his suitcase.