Friday Five: 5 Literary Looks at Las Vegas
Friday, April 24, 2015
I've never been to Las Vegas, which I feel is some sort of failing as a man, an American and a consumer of pop culture. Television and cinema both tell me that I've missed out on a lot of character-building. Alas. Someday.
That said, I've always been fascinated by its portrayal in literature. This is especially true for genre fiction, which perfects suits the essence of Vegas: a place where anything can happen.
Here are five of the many books that explore the possibilities:
I suspect Vegas literature is dominated by three things: the Mafia, gambling and prostitution. All of which we'll cover off below. But there's a distant - and compelling - fourth in boxing. Christa Faust's Choke Hold (2011) is an even more contemporary interpretation of the literature of blood sport, set in the fast-paced and brutal world of Mixed Martial Arts.
Choke Hold is the second mystery (Hard Case Crime, no less) featuring Angel Dare. In the first, Money Shot, Angel uncovers a murderous plot set in the adult film industry. In Choke Hold, Faust isn't sparing with the metaphoric comparison: she paints MMA is a world just as lurid, crippling, destructive and compellingly, pruriently visceral as porn. It is the retail - and slaughter - of highly-specialised human bodies for entertainment purposes. And, naturally, the perfect setting for violent crime. Faust's Vegas - a hub for both the sex and violence industries - as the crossroads: a place where people go to make bargains, to sell themselves, and, ultimately, leave in a tragedy.
Tod Goldberg's Gangsterland (2014) is a particularly rare beast, in that it doesn't even take place on (or near) the Strip. Instead, this is a contemporary Mafia noir set in the most terrifying of places: the suburbs. Sal Cupertine is a hitman, and possibly the best of his breed. When a job goes wrong, he kills a handful of federal agents, and, for the first time, the murders could be traced to him. Expecting to be 'disappeared', Sal is instead shuffled off into a new life - as a rabbi. In his new role, Sal's closer to death than ever before, but also, and quite against his will, picks up a new perspective on things.
An utterly bonkers premise, but Goldberg combines the best of suburban 'kitchen sink' drama with non-glamourised gangster tropes and makes it work. Sal is thoughtful lead whose innate passivity fools the reader (and occasionally Sal) into forgetting what and who he really is, making this a particularly thoughtful thriller. Also, as expected, some lovely dark comedy.
The Muses of Ruin
I can't wholeheartedly recommend William Pearson's The Muses of Ruin (1965). Pearson is an awkward combination of Arthur Hailey and Norman Mailer; a man whose books reveal a fascination with that systems work, but expressed in visceral, destructive way. I'd like to be more kind, but, in The Muses of Ruin, at least, it doesn't work. The protagonist is a self-loathing writer, who communicates with the reader... in... violent, agonising... lurid, prurient... fragmented, ornamented... prose. Although there are a few nifty phrases, the overall effect is slightly excruciating.
But then, so is the plot. Our hero finds a girl and condescends to marry her. She's the adopted child of Sammie Battle, a connected casino owner. Everything starts perfect - he can't believe his luck. But then it turns, there's betrayal, everything he thought was pure and brilliant is actually vile and broken (incidentally, there's a lot of victim-blaming here - she's vile and broken because she is the victim of horrible abuse, which is, somehow, her fault? The protagonist isn't just unreadable, but also unlikeable). Blah blah blah. His love life mirrors, unsurprisingly, his connection with gambling: he initially wins, and convinced he's special and can beat the system, he degenerates rapidly. After losing his wife, his job, and most of his sanity, he discovers (thanks to good-hearted friends, many female), that he is special and climbs back up. Etc. Whatever.
So why is this actually on the list? First, this is a... portrayal... of gambling addiction. Granted, in the same overwrought way that Go Ask Alice is a ... portrayal... of drug addiction, but still, there it is. Second, the actual climax of the book is actually pretty cool. Our hero - high on self-righteousness (he's just exposed his wife as the victim/villain/whatever) challenges Sammie to what is, effectively, a craps duel. The scene is well-done, and if the book had ended at this point, it would've been a lot better.
The Only Girl in the Game
By contrast, John D MacDonald's The Only Girl in the Game (1960) covers much of the same ground, but at half the length and in infinitely more convincing prose. Hugh Darren is a MacDonaldian figure: the square-jawed, All American, right-thinking businessman who thinks he is in control of himself and the world around him. In Hugh's case, that world is the hotel attached to a Las Vegas casino. Hugh's the bee's knees of hotel management, and is convinced that he's running the show. He's got a future, a girlfriend and a life all planned out.
Except, of course, he doesn't.
The Only Girl in the Game convincingly dismantles all of Hugh's illusions from start to finish, eventually stripping Hugh's life back to a series of brutal, almost animalistic, decisions. MacDonald consistently themes his novels around the decadence of urban civilisation; often equating human sprawl with human weakness. And in Las Vegas, the author has his perfect villain - an artificial city filled with transient structures that exist only to exploit human frailty. There is nothing defensible about Las Vegas, and MacDonald uses Hugh's story as a parable to show that nothing good - nothing solid or pure - can exist in this corrupted environment.
The Only Girl in the Game is, of course, slightly pulpy, and comes complete with a very strange ending - almost implying Hugh Darren could be a series character (ooooooh). But the strength of this slim book is how is skips from room to room, person to person, showcasing the people and the roles - the functionaries, powers and principalities - that keep the city ticking along.
Tim Powers' Last Call (1992) - well, obviously. Many of the Pornokitsch contributors have raved about Last Call at many points over the past 8 years, so I'm not sure I need to rehash them here. But Last Call is simply one of - if not the - best contemporary fantasies ever written. As a secret history, an urban fantasy, an ingenious magical system, an absorbing and self-destructive character, an entire modern mythology - it is without peer. Powers has the ability to create an infectious worldview; creating a setting that is so quietly compelling that you're still living it long after you set down the book - Last Call will make you see omens.
And, of course, it is also in Vegas.
I'm passing the dice. Which are your favourite Vegas novels? Please share in the comments, or tweet @pornokitsch.