The Nye County Brothel Wars
A TALE OF THE NEW WEST by Jeanie Kasindorf (Linden: $16.95; 302 pp.)
In "The Nye County Brothel Wars," Jeanie Kasindorf writes a nonfiction account of a segment of Americana with which many of us are unfamiliar.
The place: Nevada, always and still one of our least populous states. Settled by "those few dreamers willing to endure the hardship of the land . . . made infamous in literature and film for their hard gambling and whoring . . . Nevada quickly became known as the ideal location for doing what in the rest of America would be considered outside the realm of civilized activity."
Nye County, Nev., third largest county in America, is twice the size of the state of Vermont. In 1976, there were 5,000 people living in 10 desert towns with "two doctors, fourteen churches, thirty-five bars, thirteen motels, two hotels, seven schools, one weekly newspaper, three swimming pools, one hospital, and three legal whorehouses."
Nye County, where men are men, women are bimbos, brothels are legal, there's plenty of land and no one around to tell you " 'not to take a piss in the sand.' "
The period: From 1976 to now.
The people: A bunch of assorted low-lifes, including a convicted murderer, pimps, whores, beer-drinking-tobacco-chewing sheriff's deputies, and members of the "Tonopah Mafia." And, wearing white hats, representatives of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office.
The plot: The politics of vice.
Walter Plankinton, ex-Marine, ex-trucker, ex-wheeler-dealer from Denver, arrived in Nye County in 1976 to fulfill his trucker's dream of owning a brothel. "He knew you could buy yourself a plot of desert land for $10,000, spend another $50,000 on a half-dozen old house trailers and some used furniture, and soon be spending your working days surrounded by pretty young 'working girls' while you and the girls took in a cool one million dollars a year."
Prostitution is legal in Nevada by county option, with the exception of counties with populations in excess of 200,000, where it is illegal. Las Vegas is in Clark County, where brothels are illegal. When Plankinton plants his place nearer to Las Vegas than any of the existing brothels in Nye County, you know there's going to be trouble.
And trouble there is.
Kasindorf has written a painstaking account of the ensuing events. These include the torching of Plankinton's Chicken Ranch brothel with 14 people inside, apparent collusion and corruption in the Sheriff's Department, and the tribulations of a white-haired grandmother of 51 who successfully defeats the incumbent sheriff and, after serving for not too long, is subsequently recalled. There are also the alleged issues of white slavery, bribery and, possibly, murder.
The premise: That this is not just "a fight over a desert whorehouse." That serious issues are involved, and that injustice has been condoned, even encouraged.
The promise: Underlying all the tawdry carryings-on, there is an implication that Nye County would be torn apart, that "nothing would be the same again," that things would turn out all right.
This book is like a shadowy obverse of the medical detection pieces Berton Roueche writes for The New Yorker. Those are quietly compelling narrations weaving strands of complexities--people, places, clues and symptoms--into a comprehensible pattern and a satisfactory resolution.
Deleting from this book the repetitive descriptions of heat and desert and multitudinous trips "heading west on the I-10," this, too, would probably make a magazine-length article.
In spite of the author's excruciatingly detailed recounting of names, places, dates, conversations and descriptions, in point of fact, by the end of the book, almost everything remains very much the same. And, in spite of all the allegations, the only charges ever made to stick were perjury.
The point: If there is one to this book, it has escaped me. Kasindorf takes 299 pages for this venal, futile tale. Then, in about the last two pages, she summarizes the same prosecutors' simultaneous success in conducting an Abscam-type investigation resulting in the extortion conviction of state Sen. Floyd Lamb, and one of the prosecutor's involvement in the conviction of U. S. District Judge Harry Claiborne.
Make no mistake. Kasindorf is an excellent writer. But don't expect erotic scenes of titillation and seduction just because the ostensible subject is prostitution. The real puzzle is why she thought this subject was worthy of her talents.
This is, ultimately, a depressing book. The only thing that would make it even more so is if Kasindorf were to tell the cost of the years-long, almost-totally-futile investigation to us taxpayers.