Hard to believe, but my last foray into the gambling capital of the West indeed revolved around the literary world when I attended the American Booksellers Convention. Las Vegas, with its wanton abundance of hotel rooms and tempting conventioneer distractions, seems the ideal town for business conventions. However, books and authors seemed an unlikely fit, more a prescription for imminent trouble.
The moment I stepped off the plane, the city began working its alchemy: Those quarters in my pockets cried out to experience the slots. Before long, my educated, intellectual self was transformed into a star-spotting tourist: There's Barbara Kingsolver in the Hilton restaurant! I rode the elevator with Anne Rivers Siddons. Stood in line for hours so John Updike would autograph my freebie paperback of "Rabbit Is Whatever." Watched Amy Tan trot the convention aisles followed by a gaggle of groupies.
Before the convention's close, I viewed the Mirage volcano, partook of an all-you-can-stuff buffet and lost much travel money in games of chance. This definitely constituted non-literary behavior. So it was with initial reluctance that I picked up Mike Tronnes' "Literary Las Vegas: The Best Writing About America's Most Fabulous City." Prove to me, I challenged the anthology, that a city so successful at emptying pockets has something to fill the heart and soul.
No ordinary compilation, this collection is a bible of Las Vegas riches. Nick Tosches' introduction, "The Holy City," defines Vegas as "a place where Ken and Barbie can go to be bad." It also provides a brief history, from the early days of mob-controlled gambling to "the corporate-run nightmare draped in the cotton candy of family values" now in power.
Contributors' offerings range from Tom Wolfe's' "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby" to Hunter S. Thompson's seminal Rolling Stone piece that made "fear and loathing" household terminology.
And in between are gems. There's Susan Berman's poignant "Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter": "The sounds of my childhood were the crunching of slot machines, the click of dice, the songs of Sophie Tucker and the Andrews Sisters, and the voices of pages at the Flamingo Hotel. . . ." Her tale begins with the funeral for her father--"the greatest gangster that ever lived"--then chronicles her mother's inability to cope with the burgeoning desert town run by the underworld and her eventual descent into mental illness.
Yet no matter how gaudy its origins or contrived its landscape, at its heart, Las Vegas is a town capable of "regular" life. In Western writer Phyllis Barber's "How I Got Cultured," we glimpse a young Mormon girl's dreams of becoming a Las Vegas Rhythmette (a mini-show girl representing wholesome glamour): "me, Phyllis Nelson . . . kicking and dancing in the spotlight of the moon on a hill in the middle of the desert, dancing for the snakes, lizards and cactus blossoms while they stopped and watched."
When Phyllis becomes one of the \o7 chosen, \f7 the rewards are temporary. All this prep work turns out to be nothing more than the age-old ritual of preparing women for men. She gives up her shot at fame, yet the desire permanently marks her perceptions: "You know it's a black ribbon of asphalt rolled out on the desert floor until it passes through a bouquet of brilliant flowering lights. . . . You . . . want to hold it in your nostrils like cigarette smoke. But you know you're walking into a day lily in reverse. . . . When a flower never closes, it isn't a flower. It's only Fremont Street."
It seems clear that while few can pass through Vegas unscathed, the town has a profound effect on literary writers. Inclusion of Britain's A. Alvarez in this anthology takes this fascination to a microscopic level, recounting Horseshoe Casino owner Jack Binion's explanation of the attraction of losing and winning: "I've often thought, if I got really hungry for a good milkshake, how much would I pay for one? People will pay a hundred dollars for a bottle of wine . . . if a guy wants to bet twenty or thirty thousand dollars in a poker game. . . . That's America." We are offered instructions for living life in a depraved Disneyland, adopting a "despiritualized, depersonalized and one-dimensional" path.
In Faith Fancher and William Drummond's "Jim Crow for Black Performers," the transcript of an National Public Radio "All Things Considered" broadcast catalogues the difficulties under which black performers, eager to play the early Vegas stages and take in the sums white performers were getting, labored to maintain human dignity. In an era when America civil rights were gearing up for major change, such greats as Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Pearl Bailey were good enough for white gamblers to listen to but unwelcome at hotels. When Lena Horne refused to bow under, she was allotted a cabana--and housekeeping was instructed to burn her bed linen daily.