Where does a mobster go when he’s through mobstering?
Jail. Witness protection. Heaven (or the other place). Or maybe he just inhabits a fixer-upper he once owned in Las Vegas, where he can meet a young reporter and help her investigate some shady dealings by a crooked casino owner.
Even if he happens to be, well, dead.
It’s a scenario that’s been percolating in the imagination of Las Vegas author Brian Rouff for years, and one that Rouff finally has the chance to explore in his latest novel, “The House Always Wins” (Huntington Press, $16.95).
Rouff, 63, managing partner of a Henderson marketing and public relations agency, published two books during the early 2000s. “Then, the economy tanked and I had to go back to work more than full-time, as we all did, and I just didn’t have the time or the energy to really get on a roll with this idea,” he says.
“But it kept nagging at me. So, finally, when things started to turn around and I realized I wasn’t getting any younger, it was time to just get it done.”
The story is a double-barreled one. One thread involves a crooked casino owner who’s trying to buy up properties — including the beloved home recently purchased by young Las Vegas transplant Anna — for a parking lot. The other is the story of two people dealing with new futures: Anna, who fell in love with a bass player in a band, packed up her things and moved with him from Michigan, and Meyer, a deceased Las Vegas mobster who’s adjusting to an extracorporeal lifestyle.
Meyer is “based on some famous Vegas mobsters like Moe Dalitz and Meyer Lansky,” Rouff says, and his story mirrors those of real-life wiseguys for whom Las Vegas offered a chance for character rehabilitation and a new life.
“I love the idea of Las Vegas being the land of reinvention,” Rouff says. “And you’ve got this guy with a very nefarious past, and he’s OK with it, but having, as we all do when we get a little older, some doubts and second thoughts about maybe how he could have lived his life differently.”
There’s also “a lot of my dad in there,” Rouff says. “He wasn’t a mobster, but he grew up with mobsters in Detroit.
“Not many people remember the Purple Gang, but they were pretty notorious. He grew up with them. He was invited to participate in some of their activities, but he had the good sense to decline, which is why he lived well into his 80s.”
In addition, the home in which Anna and Meyer coexist is modeled after a place on East St. Louis Avenue that Rouff and his family lived in during the early 2000s. The home was, he says, built by Jack Eglash, who, as orchestra leader at the Sahara hotel, worked with such stars as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis.
“It was a complete mess,” he says. “We picked it up really cheap.”
Rouff has lived in Las Vegas for almost 37 years, and his novel reflects his deep knowledge of the city’s history. It’s vital to get Vegas-centric details right “because you don’t want to take the reader out of the story,” he explains. “We’ve all had that experience while reading a book.”
He cites as one memorable example a book by “a very accomplished, well-known author who will remain nameless, but most of the story took place in Las Vegas and he referred to ‘the on-ramp to Maryland Parkway.’ I’m reading that and I’m like, ‘Oh, come on now.’
“The authenticity of my adopted home here in Las Vegas I take very seriously. And, then, within that, I want to create these characters that stay with you. When somebody says, ‘I want a sequel’ or ‘I want to learn more’ or ‘I was sorry when it ended,’ that’s the ultimate compliment.”
Rouff considers his book a genre-buster — part coming of age and part road trip story, as well as “a love story, a ghost story, a Vegas story.”
Writing from the point-of-view of a twenty-something woman was challenging, Rouff says, but “I’ve got grown daughters, and I work with about 10 young women who are mostly in that millennial category, so I was surrounded by consultants. So during the time I was writing from Anna’s viewpoint, I really felt I was in tune with the female side of me, which I didn’t know I had.”
Contact John Przybys at reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.
An excerpt from “The House Always Wins” by Brian Rouff:
From there, my eyes wandered to a leather recliner on the far side of the room, where an ancient man in equally ancient PJs sat puffing on a stogie the size of a torpedo, the tip glowing an intermittent bright orange, the smoke curling up to the ceiling in the flickering light of the television screen. And, as if the entire scene weren’t strange enough already, the man was as ethereal as the smoke, a shimmering silver-gray specter drifting in and out of, well, whatever passed for reality in this room. Not much taller than a jockey, he was sporadically solid enough for me to discern a few features: the head bald, other than a scattering of wispy white hairs, large gnarled hands, and glasses with window-frame lenses held up by ears the size of satellite dishes.
As my raggedy mind tried vainly to process the spectacle, the man or whatever he was turned to me and said in a rusty voice, “I like what you’ve done with the place.”