Where is our big book, the novel that really pins down and opens up modern Las Vegas in a large, defining, reader-grabbing way? It seems overdue, doesn't it? "The place certainly deserves its own terrific, canonical novel," says Kurt Andersen, a New York journalist (who wrote the 1994 Time cover piece heralding the new Las Vegas) and novelist (whose 1999 book Turn of the Century included some terrific, canonical Vegas scenes). In the same way that New York in the full-tilt '80s needed the zeitgeist-seizing Bonfire of the Vanities, now, perhaps, the mad scramble of Vegas in this new century calls for a novel with the reach and muscle to gather it all in.
Just look at the plentitude this city offers to the ambitious novelist: boomtown growth and risk-taking mentality; incalculable money and laundered lives; the smudged line between real and ersatz; megalomaniacal characters and a picaresque mayor; the sense that anything's possible here; the assortment of cracked yahoos drawn here because anything's possible; the stubborn mystery and glamour of the mob and the indelible memory of the Rat Pack; the dark gravity of a city that seems to have some weird tie-in to every third tragic national headline. Add in the metaphorical richness of the desert, Area 51, fat Elvis, Mormon theology and Steve Wynn, and, well, you might wonder why we don't already have a long shelf of fantastic fiction dissecting these wonder years, from flinty realism to pomo dreamscapes to broad social satire.
No disrespect to the aging glories of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson), Fools Die (Mario Puzo), Vegas: Memoir of a Dark Season (John Gregory Dunne) and so on. But they're museum pieces; their incisiveness is historical, quaint now in the city's postmodern present. Some books tried to tackle the new Vegas: Paul Quarrington's The Spirit Cabinet, Gregory Blake Smith's The Madonna of Las Vegas. None caught on.
"Years ago," says John Irsfeld, a novelist (Little Kingdoms, Rat's Alley), longtime Las Vegan and pillar of UNLV's English Department, "I wrote that the book on Vegas had yet to be written. Although I'm not as up to date on this stuff as I was then, I suspect that remains the case."
Question is, why?
Vegas is too crazy, too go-go for fiction to keep up: "I suppose the obvious answer would be that a town given over to fantasy yields so many juicy 'true' stories that fiction seems almost irrelevant, or redundant," ventures Chuck Twardy, Weekly columnist and book blogger.
These are nonfictional times, after all. Philip Roth once famously warned that novelists would have a hard time imagining events as compelling as the real action going down in the streets of '60s America. Nonfiction has more or less carried the day since then, especially here in Vegas, where narratives enter the news cycle already stylized, novelistic: the Binion case, G-Sting, high-stakes gambling; doesn't Oscar Goodman seem like a fictional character most of the time? How can a writer of fiction compete with the juicy material Vegas drops on the plates of journalists and nonfiction authors (such as James McManus, who wrote Positively Fifth Street)?
"But," Twardy adds, "that's too easy, I suspect." Indeed, that line of thinking discounts the actual mechanics of fiction, the way it doesn't have to be accurate, only true in some essence. Writers can edit, sharpen and adjust narratives so that they bore deeper into the mysteries of human nature. To the extent that stories unique to Las Vegas suggest those lines of inquiry, they should, in theory, be just as useful to novelists as journalists.
Of course, that line of thinking discounts the mechanics of publishing: A true-crime account of the Binion affair will fetch more interest than a novel based on it, unless the novelist is famous.
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Vegas isn't ready for the big one: One hundred years? Not so long, really, when it comes to creating what Irsfeld calls "a community of art." That is, a density of cultural production from which a great novel might emerge. "There's a simple statistical/demographic/historical issue," Andersen says. "That is, unlike LA and New York and Paris and other older, big cities, Las Vegas hadn't had thousands of writers living there for years and years, so the pool of writers capable of writing the great Vegas novel is correspondingly smaller. So maybe it's just a matter of odds, and of time."
"I wonder if it might not be tied to our rapid growth," Irsfeld says. "I mean, when I moved to this town in the summer of '69, there were, I think, about 250,000 people in the Valley. Now, what is it: 1.4 million people? That's what, a 6x zoom? So, you know, the perceived is changing at the speed of a pickup truck and so are the perceivers." Still barreling recklessly ahead, the city isn't ready to tap the breaks so novelists can get a good look. These speedy times are more suited for the liner-notes approach of blogging.
Vegas isn't taken seriously: It's hard to imagine the sort of top-rank author who could do the most with Vegas—and wouldn't you love to read Don Delillo or Richard Powers chasing their fraught characters through the hidden chambers of Sin City history?—actually settling here long enough to learn the difference between the myth and the reality well enough to take them apart in a novel. Perhaps the myth seems too tacky, too received to have literary depth, the sort of thing best left to writers of potboilers and genre fiction. (Can a city summed up by What happens here stays here support the weight of a big-think novel?)
Or perhaps the problem is precisely the opposite: The sheer information overload of Vegas swamps the ability of thoughtful writers to sort the superficially exciting from the truly meaningful.
"In Turn of the Century," Andersen notes, "one of the characters muses on the overripe, even overbearing metaphoricalness of the place, how for smart people it's rife with neon-sign-like meaning. I wonder, maybe, if Las Vegas isn't so rich and overwhelming a setting that it seems daunting and/or somehow too obvious to 'serious' writers."
If big-name authors aren't rushing to stay here, Irsfeld finds that's just as true of the fledgling local writers that pass through his classrooms. "It's hard for many of them to get the idea that they live in a perfect place and time in which to set a novel," he says. "They tend not to do so. They tend to write about the places they started from."
If they've lived here for long, young writers learn that Vegas is, in many ways, utterly ordinary—one very exciting street in a valley otherwise carpeted by the tract developments and edge cities that are blanding out the American landscape everywhere. Des Moines with gambling. Perhaps it's not surprising that novels aren't being written about a place so few feel deeply rooted to.
Las Vegas doesn't need a serious novel. Here is the logical conclusion of that last idea: If Vegas isn't worth taking seriously, because it's a city of gaudy surfaces and little depth, because its frenetic pace hides a mundane reality, then maybe what it needs is what Miami—so like Vegas in some ways—already enjoys: Carl Hiassen. Our own Carl Hiassen. An unapologetic entertainer with a deeply absurdist bent and a lot of velocity who can do for Vegas what Hiassen has done for Florida in such books as Skin Tight and Strip Tease. That is, carom symbolic characters off the great Vegas tropes—rapacious developers! corrupt politicians! inept mobsters! showgirls with plastic breasts and hearts of gold! Area 51 spooks! an over-the-top casino mogul!—by way of mocking the whole damn place.
It might not be canonical, but it sounds terrific, and it'll help pass the time until the big book arrives.