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Chronicling Vegas has rich history

When I’m not scoping long-form documentaries these long days, I’m reading books. I used to be television news junkie, but every network is so biased toward its chosen political leaning these days that I’ve weaned off of all the ranting.

So because we have at least a few more months of semi-isolation, allow me to make some reading suggestions. If you live in or have love for Las Vegas, I’ll start with my two favorite Vegas-themed books: Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and John Gregory Dunne’s “Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season.”

Thompson’s book holds up well nearly 50 years after it was penned, because the King of Gonzo Journalism has the ability to paint a scene with the best of them. Although the book is primarily concerned with the voluminous drug intake and psychotic behavior of the author and his 350-pound attorney, Oscar Zeta Acosta, the prose tells us volumes about our city in an earlier time.

It also reaffirms the image of Vegas as the perfect place to lose your mind, which we’ve all done a time or two. Thompson’s novel is the literary antithesis of the “What happens here, Stays here.” It’s more like, “I’ll drop acid, and describe the city from the nerve endings outward.”

Dunne’s book is a compelling account of a time in the author’s life when he’d reached the nadir of despair, and he elected to come to Las Vegas either to wait out the darkness or end it all. As he survives through the summer of his discontent, the protagonist, whom we assume is Dunne, encounters a bizarre collection of semi-fictional characters, who through their oddball behaviors convince him that Vegas is a catch-all for every misfit and second-chancer on the planet.

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There’s Artha, the one-eyed hooker who keeps detailed notes on the preferences of her 1,203 tricks in the past five years; Jackie Kasey, a past-his-prime opening act comedian clinging desperately to his ever-shrinking billing on hotel marquees; and Buster Mano, a patio-furniture salesman who “views life, his own especially, as a hapless patchwork of small strategies and minor betrayals.”

On a side note: I received Dunne’s book as a Christmas gift from a dear friend in 1975 and I moved here a month later, in no small part due to the author’s characterization of Las Vegas as a place spilling over with rich material for an aspiring writer.

While I don’t have anywhere near the tolerance for illegal substances that Hunter Thompson was somehow able to ingest, and have yet to reach the level of despondency that sent author Dunne our way, I find enough humor and truth in both of their books that I to go back to them every couple years for a refresher course in descriptive writing, and a reminder of what Las Vegas was like in an earlier time.

A more recent book I would recommend is “The Splendid and the Vile” by Erik Larson. It‘s a non-fiction work that details how British Prime Minister Winston Churchill bolstered the spirits of his countrymen in 1941, as the London area was enduring Germany’s bombing blitz. The book also dissects Churchill’s strategy in luring the United States into joining the Allied forces in stopping Hitler’s move to take over all of Europe. It’s great history, and is filled with enough gossip to keep the pages turning.

Two award-winning recent books that carefully chronicle the start and ascendency of the #MeToo movement are also great reads. New York Times reporters Megan Twohy and Jodi Kantor spent two full years chasing down leads to write “She Said.”

And Ronan Farrow did a brilliant job of interviewing similar sources, and many more, in his report “Catch and Kill.” For their diligent reporting, all three journalists deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize.

The behind-the-scenes digging the three authors had to do to unearth the misbehavior of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and several other offenders reveals the skill and persistence necessary to craft outstanding investigative journalism.