Las Vegas is fully Disneyfied, or so it seems from the confines of the air-conditioned automobile as we cruise past postmodern pyramids and palaces, outsized Coke bottles and Harley-Davidson motorcycles and a phantasmagoria of miniaturized urban skylines. Once nothing more than a desert oasis known only to the native Paiutes, then a self-invented Sodom where gambling and prostitution were not only tolerated but celebrated, Las Vegas embodies a wholly child-safe and family-friendly vision of American pop culture.
"Reinvention has been the essence of the place," write co-editors Hal K. Rothman and Mike Davis in "The Grit Beneath the Glitter," a fascinating collection of essays compounded of scholarship, memoir and critique, "but what can you expect from a town with no compelling natural reason to be where it is?"
The unapologetic phoniness of the Strip--so provocative and yet somehow comforting, intentionally so--conceals a tawdry and sometimes sordid reality. "Indeed, the grander the illusion," quips one of the contributors, Norman M. Klein ("Scripting Las Vegas"), "the more dysfunction it hides." So "The Grit Beneath the Glitter" invites us to look beyond the Strip and behold the human face of the 1.3 million people who live and labor in greater Las Vegas--the 15,000 food servers and the 10,000 room cleaners, for example, the showgirls on the Strip and the girl gangs in the neighborhoods, even the inmates of the Nevada state prison at nearby Jean.
At its most ambitious moments, the book can be approached as a corrective to half a century of mystification and myth-making about America's fastest-growing city and the world's most popular tourist destination. "Las Vegas has become the favorite setting for hip anthropologists to mock the distended appetites of the majority," the co-editors write. "But Vegas is another world when you enter the gaming palaces from the employees' entrance in a back parking lot. (And we can safely bet that no Rolling Stone correspondent or postmodernist philosopher has ever done this.)"
Davis, of course, is famous for his harsh take on Los Angeles in "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles" and "Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster." Rothman has approached the study of history from an environmentalist's stance in "The Greening of a Nation? Environmentalism in the United States Since 1945." The same edginess and environmental concern are apparent in their choice of contributions to "The Grit Beneath the Glitter."
Thus, for example, "Lighting Las Vegas" by Jay Brigham explains where the electricity that so famously and so extravagantly illuminates the Strip comes from, and "Build It and the Water Will Come" by Jon Christensen does the same for the liquid that feeds those spectacular fountains at the Bellagio. And Robert E. Parker's essay, "The Social Costs of Rapid Urbanization in Southern Nevada," points out that "[t]he unrelenting construction, coupled with high winds, creates conditions that literally makes Las Vegas air unsafe to breathe."
Other contributors, however, offer a more intimate glimpse of the "real" Las Vegas, and they leave us with a sense of what it's like behind the glittering neon facade. Brian Frehner, for instance, recalls the curious experience of growing up in Las Vegas in the 1970s: "Having 'juice' was everything when I was a kid," recalls Frehner, referring to the fine art of using connections to cadge freebies. "You couldn't actually see it, but you knew when someone had it." And Kit Miller introduces us to some of the men and women on whose hard work the whole glittering enterprise is based: cooks, pot washers and waitresses, among others.
"Serving wench" Cindy Trudell, for example, remembers the good old days: "When the mob was running Vegas," she recalls, "everyone made money."
"You gotta have your meters, always test the wires," says Mario Basurto, whose job it is to maintain the neon signs for which Vegas is so famous. "You can get shocked pretty bad, 480 volts." Even a room service waiter is at risk of a shock: "[W]hen you knock on the door," says Mark Zartarian, "you never know whether the person on the other side has got a gun ... a naked woman, or both."
Palm Springs, too, can be seen as an icon of pop culture, a place where Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra retreated when they weren't playing Vegas or making movies in Hollywood. But Mary Jo Churchwell, a Palm Springs native who returned to the desert community in midlife, insists on showing us a kinder and gentler era and a more inviting landscape than we are accustomed to seeing.
"Our shelf of local lore is woefully short," she announces at the outset, and she finds the outsiders who have written about the place, ranging from Cleveland Amory to Norman Mailer, to be condescending when they are not clueless.