We all have our good reasons for settling in Las Vegas. Most are better than mine.
In 1975, I was single and unemployed and the grey clouds and incessant moisture of my hometown were starting to calcify the few working parts of my brain. But from two previous visits to Las Vegas, 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 at the time, 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 every person 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 an editor 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 snippets from these heavyweights from interviews I did with them. 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 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 commit suicide, but instead got a good book out of his visit.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” author Ken Kesey, who was the subject of my graduate school thesis and whom I knew from my years at the University of Oregon, told me at a sparsely attended lecture he gave at UNLV that he wasn’t surprised at the low turnout.
“I don’t get paid by the head,” he told me. “Besides, there are too many slot machines and hookers here. How’s a damn novelist supposed to compete with all that?”
It is 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 here ingesting hallucinogens with his Sumo-sized attorney while 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.
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.
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 take each observation at face value, as just one more person’s opinion.
We’re not nearly as decadent as observers might first think, nor are we as virtuous as PR types and Chamber of Commerce representatives espouse as they throw out the welcome mat to visitors across the globe.
What Las Vegas is, as all of those great writers would concede, is interesting. Which is precisely why I settled here all those decades ago.