Metaphor City, USA

LITERARY LAS VEGAS: Portraits of America's Most Fabulous City ed Mike Tronnas, Mainstream pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
"LAS VEGAS is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements," writes Joan Didion, with her usual dry astuteness, midway through this collection. As such, the city has long made an irresistible journalistic assignment, dazzling with neon-lit local colour, throbbing with boom-and- bust metaphors for American life and bursting with reasons to run up expenses. Walking the Strip at night, warm breezes rustling the palms and scattering the dust that still fills the vast desert gaps between the vaster casinos, or by day, the sun sweeping Midwestern pensioners off the sidewalks and into the 24-hour gloom of the gaming rooms - it is difficult for anyone with vaguely literary ambitions not to head straight back to their motel room and complimentary writing paper.

Foreigners can be particularly susceptible. "This is a fabulous, extraordinary madhouse," exclaims Noel Coward in his diary, on arriving in Las Vegas for a set of shows. "It is all very, very exciting and generous, and when I look back at the grudging dreariness of the English newspaper gentlemen ... I don't want to appear at home much more." Later, he delightedly records sipping tea in a dinner-jacket in the desert for a Life magazine photo session while the temperature is 118 degrees.

Coward's naive thrill at the frenetic vulgarity around him is infectious. But the sheer excess of the city - legalised and openly advertised prostitution, nine of the world's ten largest hotels, a phone book that uniquely changes twice a year to cope with transience - overwhelms some of the other contributors. Richard Meltzer writes mostly in bewildered notes and capital letters: "CHANNEL 5: Every ten minutes they plug EVERY SHOW THAT'S ON SAT & SUN ShaNaNaCharlies AngelsLaverne&Shirley ... 2 seconds of everything ..." Nick Tosches is a Vegas expert, but nevertheless ends up groping for similarly inarticulate profundities: "... we can look at America as the sum, the garish metastatic necrosis, of that [Las Vegas] narcotic's effects."

Much of this over-writing can be blamed on Hunter S Thompson, an episode of whose much-imitated 1971 literary bender Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is included here. Thompson's frenzied, fragmented style, his full-on immersion in the city and his observation that "this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs ... reality itself is too twisted" are still bracing on an English winter afternoon, but form, in retrospect, a bit of a blind alley. The reality of Las Vegas overpowers zany attempts to write about it.

And the city is as much melancholy as manic. For every eyes-popping, insomniac winner, there are scores of beggars hanging around the faded downtown, and thousands more people who have just lost. Jane O'Reilly spots this, by spending a night in a casino's Ladies Room with low-paid waitresses and middle-aged women who can't get the slot machine coin-stains off their hands. A transcript of a radio programme about segregation in Las Vegas - once known as "the Mississippi of the West" for, among other customs, its casino owners' refusal to let black performers stay the night after entertaining the customers - points to the same stony city heart beneath all the jewellery.

The best pieces here capture both sides. Albert Goldman shows an ageing Elvis desperately taking a young stud called Tom Jones out for drinks to learn new stage tricks for his comeback. Tom Wolfe, meanwhile, writing in 1964 with frightening young sharpness, manages to come up with just about every Vegas theme before anyone else. He notes the assembly lines of the slot machines, the trance-like actions of the gamblers, the hallucinogenic visual bombardment of the city as a whole. Pre-empting Baudrillard by two decades, he identifies in Las Vegas an entire city of "electronic simulation", where signs for buildings are more important than the buildings themselves. Then he anticipates the architect Robert Venturi's visit to the city in the Seventies, which led to the polemic Learning From Las Vegas and the beginning of post-modern architecture, by examining the avant garde kitsch of the signs themselves: "I can only attempt to supply names ... Boomerang Modern ... Flash Gordon-Ming-Alert Spiral ... Mint Casino Elliptical ... Frank Lloyd Wright [seems] rather stuffy business, like a jest at a faculty, compared to it."

The idea that tacky Las Vegas, like similarly-derided Los Angeles, is actually very modern and influential is taken up by Marc Cooper's closing essay. With its low-paying jobs, low taxes, and low to non-existent social cohesion (the city is running out of water because residents refuse to stop watering their lawns), Las Vegas, which is the fastest-growing city in the country, looks a lot like the future for America and elsewhere. But Cooper isn't just a doom-monger. Ducking in and out of Vegas' new theme park casinos - like the Luxor, a 2,500-room shiny black pyramid with the vertiginous interior of St Paul's - he remembers why the city exists: gambling. He plays, wins, loses, and decides that small victories by ordinary people at the gaming table still constitute a valid dream at Vegas. Just don't annoy the security guards.