We all have our good reasons for settling in Las Vegas. Most are better than mine.
In 1975, I was single and unemployed, the gray clouds and incessant moisture of my hometown were starting to calcify the few working parts of my brain, but from two previous visits, I had a gut feeling there was a truckload of stories to be written in a city as unique and bizarre and wonderful as this one.
I knew a sum total of two people living here, both card dealers, but pitching plastic and ordering “Cocktails!” was not my career goal. I hungered for material to write about.
I liked Las Vegas from Jump Street and never really considered leaving. Through some friends that first year, I was invited to a couple of social gatherings, and nearly everyone I met had a different story, an unusual background or a delightfully skewed sense of the world at large. In sum, I observed a Byzantine banquet of tales that I could put on paper if only I could arm-twist anyone into paying for them. I was accustomed to poverty as an aspiring writer, so the tomato soup-and-wiener diet those first two years didn’t bother me all that much.
I’ve always been interested in hearing the observations of other writers, many of whom reached the top of the literary world, from when they spent a day or a week or a month in our city. Recently, I went back and reviewed some of the more esteemed Vegas literature from the greats, and snippets of conversation they shared on the record about our city. It reminded me of how resilient we are in Las Vegas in our ability to take with a smile the harpoons that we so readily invite, with our celebration of excess and communal need to underscore all our offerings in bold type.
The fine essayist and novelist John Gregory Dunne, in his book “Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season,” wrote in the 1970s that he came here to contemplate suicide, but instead got a good books out of it.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” author Ken Kesey, who was the subject of my graduate school thesis and who I knew from my years in Oregon, told me at a sparsely attended lecture he gave at UNLV that he wasn’t surprised so few showed up to hear him.
“I don’t get paid by the head,” he told me. “Besides, there’s too many slot machines and hookers here. How’s a damn novelist supposed to compete with that?”
The noted playwright Edward Albee (“The Zoo Story,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) once gave a lecture in Artemus Ham Hall, and I had an entire row to myself. That evening Albee had a bandage over one eye and joked that he’d been rolled by a pimp the night before. (At least I think he was joking; he never fully explained.)
It’s well known that Hunter S. Thompson’s excuse for coming here was to cover the original Mint 400 off-road race for Rolling Stone, but he spent the majority of his time ingesting hallucinogens with his Sumo-sized attorney and comparing Circus Circus to a Nazi celebration. Those shenanigans led to his signature work, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which evolved into a touchstone for the Doonesbury comic strip and at least three bad movies.
More than one noted writer back then observed that our only nod to culture was a museum that existed solely to house Liberace’s floor-length chinchilla coats and diamond-studded keyboards. (I guess the Smith Center has forever silenced that joke.)
Although he would never be included in literary circles with the writers previously named, local resident Mario Puzo probably did more than all the others to brand Las Vegas as being in the pocket of organized crime with his novel, “The Godfather.” Whether it was dirty money being poured into Strip hotels, or bags of cash being shuttled from casino cages, the message of that book and the trilogy of iconic films to follow was that our city was just a blood vessel away from the beating heart of corruption.
Then there’s the celebrated travel author Jan Morris, who included an entire essay on Las Vegas in her best-selling book, “Journeys.” Morris, for those of a younger generation, was born James Morris and was an honored cavalry soldier for five years in the Queen’s Lancers before beginning gender transformation procedures at age 38. At the time, he was married with five children. Remarkably, nearly a half century later, she is still legally united in a civil partnership with the woman who bore his children. (One has to be careful with pronouns in discussing Morris.)
While we didn’t spend more than a minute musing on the fairly recent shift from female to male of Chaz Bono, Morris was easily the most well-known person to undergo a sex change years ago, and the shock waves were surely not easy to absorb. One has to think it lent depth and perspective to his/her work.
A city magazine I edited those many years ago hosted a reception for Morris when she was doing her Vegas research for “Journeys,” and we invited some local dignitaries. Eminently polite and gracious, Morris told me in an aside that she detected a streak of darkness running through our city, and she even used the word “evil” in her essay. But the title of the book chapter about Las Vegas was “Fun City,” and she thoroughly charmed and entertained all of us who hosted her that day. She even said she very much looked forward to returning to view the ongoing evolution of our “fascinating little town,” and hoped we would clean up our act.
Those of us who’ve been here for the bulk of our lives don’t flinch from the cascade of criticism that comes our way. The trick is to learn to absorb every observation and take each one at face value, as just one more person’s opinion. We’re not nearly as decadent as first observers might choose to think, nor are we as noble as PR types and Chamber representatives espouse as they throw out the welcome mat to visitors across the globe.
What we are, as all of these great writers would concede, is interesting.
Which is precisely why I settled here in the first place.
Longtime Las Vegas resident and author Jack Sheehan’s column appears monthly. He says he loves the city, with all its wonder and weirdness, and thinks it offers the richest menu of writing material on the planet. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org