Metaphor City, USA

LITERARY LAS VEGAS: Portraits of America's Most Fabulous City ed Mike Tronnas, Mainstream pounds 14.99

"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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links
    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing