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His Observation Deck

Author John Ridley returns to view the Vegas he's made his own, in life and fiction

July 24, 2002|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — John Ridley nurses no illusions. He'd be the first to tell you that it's been quite some time since Vegas has been the Neverland of pocket squares and peau-de-soie; since Rat Pack high style and high jinks gave way to ... well ... Peter Frampton, and Vicki Lawrence as "Mama," headlining in the Strip's plush main rooms.

No matter. As a writer, he knows all one needs is inspiration. And as a gambler, he knows you have to telegraph your intentions to orchestrate just the right atmosphere. "Putting your money on the table," Ridley lays out the rules, "is demonstrating your action."

Fresh off the plane from L.A., standing at the taxi stand at Mandalay Bay and thumbing through a thick fold of bills, Ridley is ready for another weekend of conversation, cocktails, casino hopping and come what may. Friday night in Vegas lies ahead like an open stretch of desert road

He's been on a roll of late. There's a new film in the theaters: "Undercover Brother," for which he's got another screenwriter credit; a new book on the shelves with his name on the jacket: "A Conversation With the Mann" (Warner Books, 2002); and many more manuscripts and pitches on the front burner. So he's come to Vegas to check his baggage, literally and figuratively.

More weekends than not, Ridley, 35, decides to trade the artifice of Los Angeles for the artifice of Las Vegas--the hyper-unreal for the hyper-surreal. Often in a heartbeat.

The author of four novels, he has found a hazy spot squeezed between old Vegas and new Vegas, high Vegas and potboiler Vegas, and made it his own--both in life and on the page. While some of his previous novels sniffed around Vegas' seamier back streets, his new book is set center stage in the golden age of clubs and carousing.

For 10 years, Ridley's been returning, accumulating some of the details that wound up in his "Conversation." Work doesn't interfere with his visits. Marriage hasn't curtailed them. "I stay up here, she [his wife, Gayle,] stays downtown. We have different tastes."

Tonight he spins through a few possible scenarios: "I figure dinner. A little gambling, maybe a live act. Or not ... ," he says, eyes trained beyond the taxi's smoked glass and taking in Vegas' oddly amalgamated skyline--the Sphinx, the Chrysler Building, the Eiffel Tower. "There are times when I come here every weekend. I couldn't imagine living so close and not."

For Ridley, Vegas isn't as much a destination as a musical key, a mood. And though that glittering necklace of grand-style casinos is but a mirage, Ridley's tack is to find the reality below the rippling air. Instead of a tipsy romp, the night life in his new novel is set against the contours of the civil rights movement, and he's chosen a struggling black comic, Jackie Mann, to be the eyes and ears of this tale.

There is a moment early in "A Conversation With the Mann" that is as poignant as it is prescient. Mann, high on the laughs and applause at the Sands' Copa Room, decides to venture onto the strictly segregated casino floor:

"More than anything in the world I wanted to gamble," says Jackie. "Not for the jazz of laying the bet, or the sake of wagering money. What I wanted was to stand at a table with all those people--suited men, ladies in their best dresses--living high and living fast and living Cocktail Society. I wanted to see them do a Red Sea-part as I made my way to the roulette wheel and listened to all their star-struck bits: 'Great job tonight, Jackie!' 'Heck of a show, Jackie!' ... I wanted them to fawn and gush and throw me their love same as they threw it at me when I was performing, when I was standing three feet above.... Then I did it. No back-and-forth debate with myself, no working my way to a decision. I just did it. I just pushed open the doors and walked out of the Copa Room and into the casino."

Ridley's riffing on that very style: As he strides into the casinos of the new Vegas, his Vegas, he still wants to test the limits. That's the whole point, he figures. To push it. Shake it up. He's learned that the many worlds he navigates are simply a collection of high-stakes games that are as much about luck as timing--skill, he believes, is irrelevant. And, like Mann, maybe, for him the gamble is about more than the money. It's the heads turning, and those "star-struck bits." It's the idea of being "three feet above" it all--if only for a moment.

He can make the waters part in Vegas. A nice suit, a big bet and $200 tips all around ensure a trailing spotlight, gratitude, even respect--Vegas style. Here, he's a winner, even when he loses. All this runs counter to Hollywood and its inherent gamble, going to the table and coming back on the downside.

He scored big in 1999 with "Three Kings," but was infuriated when George Clooney was cast in the lead, even though the character was written as an African American male. (Though he wrote the original screenplay, he protested changes and wound up with a "story by" credit.)

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