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Book Review : The Day the Chicken Ranch Burned

November 01, 1985|TOM CHRISTIE | Christie is a free-lance writer and critic. and

The Nye County Brothel Wars: A Tale of the New West by Jeanie Kasindorf (Simon & Schuster: $16.95)

In the dark, early-morning hours of June 10, 1978, the 62-year-old night maid of the Chicken Ranch, a new brothel in the desert northwest of Las Vegas, opened the parlor door to a man she quite naturally thought to be a customer. He wasn't. After grabbing her by the throat and throwing her down, the man splashed a thick black liquid--a mixture of kerosene and gasoline, it turned out--all about the room. Then he lit a match.

The six aluminum trailers that made up the Chicken Ranch--and in which the dozen "working girls" and their manager were sleeping--exploded in flames, creating an inferno so intense that temperatures inside reached 2,400 degrees. Miraculously, everyone escaped without serious injury.

Meanwhile, when a Nye County sheriff's deputy awoke his superior to inform him of the fire, he was told to call back an hour later with the regular wake-up call. Then the superior went back to sleep while the Chicken Ranch burned to the ground, nearly killing 14 people.

"Out of the confusion of the morning's early hours only two things were clear," author Jeanie Kasindorf wrote in her 1979 article for New West magazine (out of which this book grew). "Somebody in Nye County wanted the Chicken Ranch to burn. And nobody in Nye County seemed to want to find out why."

The events leading up to and far beyond the burning of the Chicken Ranch, from owner Walter Plankington's noisy arrival in Nye County in 1976 to the trial of three rivals before a Las Vegas grand jury four years later, are re-created in Kasindorf's first book.

The stranger-than-fiction story is much larger than one might expect, encompassing a huge cast of characters, good and bad, including the judge who had run Nye County for 21 years; the redneck, pot-bellied sheriff and the 53-year-old woman who would defeat him; a New York City cop turned brothel owner; a sad little woman "sold" into prostitution and unable to escape the claws of her pimp lover; the ambitious federal lawmen--an FBI agent and U.S. attorney--who went after corruption in Nye County; and perhaps the main character, Nye County itself--and the 5,000 people who call it home.

"They were people who had spent their lives moving west across America," Kasindorf writes, "out of the cities and the crowded suburbs, until they came to this lonesome desert, where you could buy five acres of land for $450 down and $50 a month and have plenty of space to call your own. And have no one around to tell you where to put the garbage. . . . Or tell you to quiet your dogs. . . ."

In 1981, Kasindorf received the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for Distinguished Magazine Reporting, an honor obviously well-deserved. For she has indeed done an impressive job of reporting here, gathering an incredible amount of information and from it creating a competent, often entertaining, narrative.

Unfortunately, perhaps drained by the heavy demands of research and construction, Kasindorf is far less successful with the important novelistic elements of the story. What the book sorely needs, but lacks, is a heightened sense of drama. But as she is apparently content to stick dispassionately to more or less stating the facts--or unable to effectively do otherwise--Kasindorf's prose never rises above the material, which, while interesting and often compelling, is never truly fascinating.

And, too, what with dialogue that appears to exist mainly to help move the narrative along and descriptive passages that rarely amount to more than the simple listing of physical characteristics and/or biographical information, none of her characters ever really comes alive. There are no deft strokes here, whereby the reader instantly sees a character.

Consequently, what might have been captivating--had more thought and effort gone into the writing and less into the loving accumulation of thousands of details--is, in fact, a book all too easily put down and forgotten.

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