Viva Las Vegas!Las Vegas. The name inspires a hybrid image, half Disneyland and half Sodom and Gomorrah. It is the fastest-growing city in the U.S., its population having boomed from 400,000 in 1980 to more than a million now. As four new books attest, Vegas is also a magnet for the imagination. Inevitably the authors focus on the four-mile stretch of casinos called the Strip, but along the way they address many other aspects of the Industry as Las Vegas residents refer to gambling including entertainment, prostitution, organized crime, and law enforcement.
Let's move from the narrowest focus to the broadest. Pete Earley, the investigative reporter who wrote The Hot House about Leavenworth, and also published exposes about the Aldrich Ames and John Walker spy cases, has a new book, Super Casino: Inside the New Las Vegas (Bantam, $26.95, 0553095021). He explores everything from legendary Las Vegas promoters such as Bugsy Siegel and Howard Hughes to the astonishing success of recent family-oriented entertainment facilities.
Several of Earley's stories demonstrate the hypnotic pull the city exerts on residents who try to escape. One security guard tells the story of his experiences during the tragic fire that raged through the MGM Grand Hotel in 1980. Afterward, traumatized, he and his wife moved to Florida to flee the memories, but finally they returned because they missed the twenty-four-hour excitement. Andres Martinez covers some of the same territory from a completely different point of view in 24/7: Living It Up and Doubling Down in the New Las Vegas. Martinez gave himself a month to lose the $50,000 his publisher had given him to chronicle a gambling spree. Along the way he wrote a vivid, you-are-there account of his adventures, one day per chapter. Like Paul Theroux, Martinez seems part fascinated anthropologist and part happy-go-lucky adventurer. It's an appealing combination, and makes for a personal take on an impersonal town. Unlike the other Vegas books described here, 24/7 is also extremely amusing.
Inevitably, the most varied of these volumes is an anthology, The Real Las Vegas: Life Beyond the Strip (Oxford, $30, 0195130707), edited by journalism professor David Littlejohn. Fourteen vivid chapters by as many writers explore such topics as gambling, organized crime, the real estate boom, and locals who decry their home town's reputation. For example, the chapter Law and Disorder details the countless scam artists who trail the nouveau riche foolish enough to flaunt their wealth. Skin City follows a limo driver who caters to whorehouse clients and acts as surrogate uncle to the prostitutes themselves; then it explores the strip joints of the city.
Broader still in scope is David Thomson's new book, In Nevada, which bears the ambitious subtitle The Land, the People, God, and Chance (Alfred A. Knopf, $27.50, 0679454861). You'll recognize Thomson's name from his several previous books, including Rosebud, his biography of Orson Welles, and Beneath Mulholland, a lively tour of Hollywood history. From early nuclear testing to recent theological battles, he prowls his self-assigned turf with scrupulous attention. He refutes those who consider Vegas hell on Earth: Hell is rebuke, torture, and eternal punishment for those who have sinned. Las Vegas may be founded on a paradox, or a trick, but the idea that you will play and strive and then lose is not hellish. For many of us, it's a profound and absorbing metaphor for life. Thomson mentions that, because he normally writes about film, people couldn't understand why he was writing about Nevada. If I sometimes seem to concentrate on film, why, really, it's just a way into life, and words, and wondering what you can believe. For Thomson, as for the authors of these four books, that is precisely what Las Vegas is a way into many other things that seem to converge in the near-mythical city that rises from the desert like a neon mirage.
Michael Sims is the author of Darwin's Orchestra (Henry Holt).