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[The Strip Sense]

The good, the bad and the meh: The read on three new Vegas books

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I hate reading books by local authors I know. If I dislike them, I want to say so and that gets awkward. So I try not to.

Recently, though, two writers insisted: former CityLife scribe Matthew O’Brien and Weekly staffer Rick Lax. And just as I dug into their latests, Stephens Media sent a copy of prolific Vegas biographer Jack Sheehan’s newest. Three is a nice round number to journalists, so I spent the first week of 2011 plowing through them.

Of them, I most dreaded O’Brien’s My Week At the Blue Angel. When his first, Beneath the Neon, was published, I bit my tongue. In private, though, overwrought passages about his self-congratulatory adventures in the network of storm drains made me giggle. Sample: “I realized he was ... just another person who eats and sleeps, who thinks and feels, who dreams and doubts. Just another person who laughs and cries, who loves and hates, who lives and then dies.”

For the sake of peace at the Coffee Bean, where I see O’Brien occasionally, I didn’t want to address Blue Angel, either. But Matt is the most aggressive marketer I’ve met, and upon being cornered at the café I told him to send it to me.

It’s more of the same. Blue Angel is a compilation of banal pieces that once ran in CityLife along with a lengthy chapter about spending time at the titular Fremont motel. Yet while that experience could have been fascinating, O’Brien blows two full days of his visit talking to people—Bob Stoldal and Betty Willis—he could have chatted up some other time.

As with the storm drains book, O’Brien seems to believe he ought to get credit just for having been somewhere and seen something, and you often feel he’s close to a really good yarn but is incapable of either seeing it or transmitting it with grace or flair. He traffics in mundane dialogue and painstaking but irrelevant-to-the-story details that he may believe make for good, insightful writing. They don’t.

I also nervously took on Lax’s Vegas memoir Fool Me Once, always suspicious of writers who move to Vegas to write The Vegas Book. But Lax succeeds at taking readers into the Vegas singles/club world in a way that is funny, illuminating and self-effacing. He also delves into something I’ve never read much about: the Vegas magician universe.

But what’s more important here is that Lax has a purpose—he is using Vegas to research a book on the art of deceit—and what he seems to find is that this city may actually be more honest than most because it can be so crass and harsh. Fool Me Once marks real growth for Lax, whose first book, Lawyer Boy, was fun but inconsequential. (Before you O’Brien partisans claim I’m sucking up to Lax because he is a Weekly colleague, I urge you to revisit the lambasting I gave Weekly writer John Curtas’ “guidebook” in November.)

Veteran author Sheehan is a wonderful writer, but he’s on autopilot in Forgotten Man, a biography of Bill Bennett, pioneer of the mass market with Excalibur and Luxor. Sheehan is a mere emcee who provides a brief thumbnail of Bennett’s life, then lets sources relate their often tedious memories verbatim for 200 pages.

This approach worked in Sheehan’s Quiet Kingmaker, about legendary banker Parry Thomas, because Thomas and cohorts like Steve Wynn told new stories about fascinating, historical people. Bennett, however, isn’t interesting or likable. Also, he’s dead, and Sheehan’s storytellers here don’t have much flair, which is the problem with turning the prose over to others.

Sheehan wants us to empathize with Bennett, but the gaming figure comes across as a total asshole. For the most wonkish and Vegas-obsessed, this might be worth an afternoon, but it’s far from Sheehan’s best work.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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