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Literary Las Vegas

Writer Charles Bock, on bringing a sense of place to Sin City

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(Left to right) Bock, Goldberg and Coake.
Photo: Iris Dumuk

The Vegas Valley Book Festival, which wrapped up last week, can be understood as the community’s attempt to find a place for itself on the high-culture map. So it’s fitting that one of its programs, featuring Charles Bock, the closest thing we have to a literary star, dealt with how writers try to place Vegas on the page.

Moderated by UNLV creative writing professor Douglas Unger, last Saturday’s symposium had as its ostensible theme what role regionalism—writers identifying themselves and being preoccupied with rendering specific places—had to play in today’s literary world, other than the fact that, as Unger noted, it’s a “really good way to sell books.”

The panelists included Tod Goldberg, the author of four novels and a short story published in the recent crime collection Las Vegas Noir; Reno-based Christopher Coake, author of the short-story collection We’re in Trouble; and Bock, whose first novel, Beautiful Children, was published this year to acclaim.

Goldberg was avuncular and self-deprecating, Coake genial and professorial. Bock projected a different air, both loquacious and somehow pensive, as if already, just one major work into his career, he feels a kind of invisible weight, a weight of expectation, hovering around him, and he’s trying both to do it justice and to undercut it.

Bock’s Vegas-set novel debuted alongside another Vegas novel, Joe McGinniss’ The Delivery Man. While Unger was willing to just come out and say that Bock’s presentation of Vegas was more authentic, the author accepted the compliment politely but warily, not wanting to pile on a writer (McGinniss) who wasn’t in the room. Still, Bock sounded dubious about overarching statements about regionalism—perhaps because writers, like most artists, tend to balk at restricting labels. “I don’t think anyone thinks of themselves as a Western writer,” he said. “Each writer has to respond to things that move them and the voice inside them.”

The conversation eventually turned toward unreliable narrators, what Goldberg described as “people who can’t delineate their truths from the facts of the world,” as well as the idea of non-linear story construction—meant to be a reflection of the haphazard ways our minds really work, constantly taking us out of any moment and into memories, reveries, fantasies and daydreams. The panelists inadvertently offered a commentary on the challenges of writing about Vegas, leaning heavily on our own preconceived notions of a city built out of artifice.

Bock’s novel came about in part because he didn’t feel like his vision of the city had been written. “I knew the city I had grown up in. That wasn’t there … If you live here, you know how image-oriented this city is.”

Of course, Bock himself lives in New York City these days. And he spoke of an ambivalence about his hometown. He feels uncomfortable in the city, and yet he is capable of moments of comfort, as when reminiscing with an old friend recently or whenever he sees a UNLV basketball game on TV. But it’s that ambivalence, the “cracks in a fissure of a place you really love,” that provides writers with both the connection and the detachment, what Bock called “critical distance,” to really capture a place. Even one as hard to grasp as Las Vegas.

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