Summer is upon us, and Las Vegas summers ain’t no joke. So let’s close the windows, crank up the humming air conditioner and see what fine novels are made of. Use these 100-plus-degree days to bone up on some books that really explain what Vegas is about.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, by Hunter S. Thompson (Vintage Books, $15)
If you ask out-of-towners to name a “Vegas” book, most would point to Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, even though Thompson never lived here. There’s even a Ruben Sanchez mural in Downtown depicting Raoul Duke, the semi-biographical antihero of Thompson’s drug-fueled Vegas bender.
The first time I read Fear and Loathing, I disliked its meandering prose, wanton wastefulness and manic pacing. I worried for the maids and bartenders who had to clean up after the debauchery of Duke and his attorney. But after living in Vegas for a few years, I began to see that it possesses the same brilliance as Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream. Both look at the contradictions inside the ethos of the American Dream: To achieve it, you must declare allegiance to what is best for the group, yet individualism and shunning herd mentality is the very essence of being American. Duke chooses to drop out of the rat race and faces down his disillusion with the American Dream through a haze of psychedelic drugs. Like the man himself says, “A little bit of this town goes a very long way.”
About a Mountain, by John D’Agata (W.W. Norton & Company, $15)
About a Mountain is an investigative ecological thriller that looks at the way our government deals with the aftereffects of nuclear waste. D’Agata’s account of the history and possible future of the nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain is a masterful and disturbing story that views our desert oasis through the perspective of time. Spoiler alert: Our Garden of Eden, surrounded by mountains older than dinosaurs, could someday be destroyed by our thirst for nuclear power. This book is controversial because D’Agata conflated the timelines of key events to make his narrative more compelling; Vegas-raised author Charles Bock, in reviewing the book for The New York Times, suggested About a Mountain might compel “any decent fact-checker … to set himself—or, better, D’Agata—on fire.”
We Are Called to Rise, by Laura McBride (Simon & Schuster, $25)
This book’s central theme is how new beginnings can come out of tragedy. Local author Laura McBride was inspired to write We Are Called to Rise by the real-life 2008 police shooting of ice cream truck driver and Albanian immigrant Deshira Selimaj. Her debut novel stirs the pot in several ways: police overreach, aging in a city that values youth, immigration and the all-too-real struggles of soldiers returning home from war.
Leaving Las Vegas, by John O’Brien (Grove Press, $11)
You may have seen the dark, brooding and compelling 1995 film version of John O’Brien’s 1990 book, starring Nicolas Cage as Hollywood screenwriter Ben Sanderson. Sanderson decides to head to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. But as with most people’s Las Vegas goals, it just doesn’t work out that easily. He meets and befriends a prostitute named Sera. An uneasy friendship develops between them, one that is centered on a mutual non-interference pact with their lives. While the book has a very graphic rape scene, it is worth the read because of how authentically it portrays the interaction between the expectations of tourists and the reality of living here. “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” is fine if you leave, but it can be no picnic for the thousands that rely on our city’s legal and illicit trades.
The Anarchy of Memories: Short Fiction Featuring Las Vegas Icons, edited by Geoff Schumacher (Huntington Press, $14)
The Vegas Valley Book Festival-sponsored Las Vegas Writes project is a brilliant idea in paperback form. Local fiction and nonfiction writers are invited to create stories or write essays about key pieces of Vegas iconography while asking the question, “What if?” The Anarchy of Memories asks and answers the question, “What if Andre Agassi was caught up in a futuristic court room drama?” “What if Ted Binion haunted his former home?” Local writers, including Drew Cohen and Sonya Padgett, fill this tome with fun, easy-to-read short stories that portray these icons in an alternate light.
After reading this, and the other books on this list, you can’t say that Las Vegas has no cultural depth. You probably need to just pick up a book or two.