What fidelity—if any—does a realistic novelist owe to a place she writes about? It’s an interesting question, especially when said novelist is describing your home: in this case, Donna Tartt’s depiction of Las Vegas in her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Goldfinch (Little, Brown & Co, 2013). Of the 760-plus pages of Goldfinch, Tartt sets about 200 in Las Vegas, and as a Las Vegan with a capital “V,” I’m always curious to read how nonresident writers perceive our city, which usually ranges from wildly absurd to spot-on. Tartt’s Las Vegas take falls somewhere in between.
When Theo Decker, the book’s teenage protagonist, relocates from New York City to Las Vegas to live with his estranged father, Theo’s friend says, “It’s like you’re moving to a different planet.” Score one for Tartt. But as Theo’s plane touches down, the pilot welcomes its passengers to “Lost Wages, Nevada,” immediately followed by a reference to “Sin City.” Two tropes in one paragraph? Deduct two points.
Beyond that, Tartt gets some of it right, and some not-so-right. She hits her stride when measuring the landscape through Theo’s eyes: “[T]he improbable skyline dwindled into a wilderness of parking lots and outlet malls, loop after faceless loop of shopping plazas…” describing Las Vegas’ neighborhoods as “what tourists never see.” Likewise, she does a wonderful job of contrasting Theo’s adjustment from New York’s claustrophobic confines to Nevada’s endless space. For the most part, Theo’s time in Las Vegas is spent acclimating to his new life, and actual depictions of our city are few.
Theo’s father, however, is an inveterate gambler—a predictable plotline with a predictable Vegas ending—a 3-point deduction. But when Tartt’s characters describe Las Vegas, they frequently nail it, as with Theo’s dad’s girlfriend, who describes the Strip thusly: “They tried to sell this whole family-friendly package a few years ago, but it didn’t wash.”
But Tartt’s most telling Vegas introspection comes from Theo himself, while he’s reading Walden for his English class: “What would Thoreau have made of Las Vegas: its lights and rackets, its trash and daydreams, its projections and hollow façades?” Substitute “Tartt” for “Thoreau” in the previous sentence and you’ll likely understand how this novelist views Las Vegas.