Lots of history to learn about

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Do you ever find yourself wishing that Las Vegas would slow down for just a minute and take a breath of occasionally fresh air? This sprint we’re on toward becoming a megalopolis can be exhausting.

I’ll bet even the reality-show Housewives from other cities, or the former plasticized Teen Moms who frequent the latest nightclub opening hoping to get 20 seconds of TMZ fame, occasionally feel like kicking off their Manolo Blahniks and text-messaging for a while.

I have my own remedy for clinging to what little remains of my sanity. When I sense that the incessant traffic and bustle are about to suck all the air out of our zip code, I settle in with a good book.

I know that positions me worlds apart from the legions of those whiling away their leisure hours on Tinder or watching Season 93 of the Kardashians or another cheery episode of “Hoarders,” well, so be it.

My reading preferences include a blend of fiction and non-fiction, old and new. I like biographies and histories, books of essays, and some classic fiction. I read fewer novels than I once did, probably because I devoured well over 1,000 classics on my trek through college and grad school, all of which earned me zero job offers upon getting my masters degree in English.

But I would never want a mulligan on my choice of major. I could argue I’ve been using the lessons provided by great writers for the last 40 years, and the classrooms back then had a 7-to-1 female to male ratio.

One of my two favorite Las Vegas-themed books is easy: Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas still holds up some 50 years after it was penned by the King of Gonzo Journalism. Although the book is primarily concerned with the voluminous drug intake and psychotic behavior of Thompson and his 350-pound attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, the prose tells us volumes about our city in an earlier time, and reaffirms the image of our town as an ideal place to lose your mind.

The other is Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season, by John Gregory Dunne. It is a compelling account of a time in the author’s life when he’d reached the nadir of despair and 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 and real characters who through their oddball behaviors convince him that Vegas is a magnet for every misfit and second-chancer on the planet.

There’s Artha, the one-eyed hooker who keeps detailed notes on the sexual preferences of her 1,243 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 present from a dear friend in 1975 and moved here the next month, 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 their books that I go back to them every couple of years for a refresher course in descriptive writing and a reminder of what Las Vegas was like two generations ago. 

Both Thompson and Dunne are gone. Dunne left us at the end of 2003, and not as he forecasted by his own hand; and Thompson in 2005, by a self-administered shotgun blast. I can’t help wondering as we enter 2019, as I read their books again for the umpteenth time, how they would characterize this sprawling city that now creeps to mountain rims in every direction, gobbling up water and trees and driving desert tortoises and bighorn sheep and native squirrels into new and foreign habitats.

The 10-minute trips across town that led these writers from one bizarre adventure to the next would take them half an hour today. And the small-town atmosphere of the early 1970s that allowed their subjects to speak from the soul no longer exists.

About the Author

Jack Sheehan

Vegas Vibe columnist Jack Sheehan has lived in Las Vegas since 1976 and writes about the city for Gaming Today. He is the author of 28 books, over 1,000 magazine articles, and has sold four screenplays.

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