Clark County's answer to Joan Didion
August 27, 2018 2:37 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for writing that captures Las Vegas with thoughtful candor—think what Joan Didion has done for SoCal. Nonfiction preferred, but fiction is also great.

Backstory: A friend is unexpectedly moving to Las Vegas, against their wishes. Personally, I do not enjoy Las Vegas, by which I mean Las Vegas seems to vacuum the life spark from my very soul. My friend finds Vegas similarly oppressive. Given that Friend also hates dry air, extreme heat, and various pollens that abound in southern Nevada, this is probably gonna be a fun ride all around.

However! I need to be strong here. I need to be the bearer of gifts, the wisher of luck. And I want my gift pile to include some Vegas-themed books that will interest my friend. I'm not looking for super upbeat, Vegas-adoring texts; these are likely to make my friend feel worse. Definitely out are tourist guides that assume you are a. excited to be in rockin' Las Vegas, and b. interested in the activities that typically attract people to rockin' Las Vegas. Instead, Friend would prefer to read candid cultural analysis, preferably in the form of personal essays. Again, think what Joan Didion has done for SoCal. Of course, Didion is a unique treasure, and I'm not expecting to be told about a secret Vegas writer who works similar magic. But anyone who writes honestly about LV would be golden.

So far I have Dave Hickey (who is the only writer who's ever managed to make me wonder if LV is interesting), and...that's about it.


- Ideally looking for personal essays.
- Friend has limited patience for other types of nonfiction, but suggestions are still welcome. Like, majestic tomes about the history of the city itself are unlikely to interest them. But let's say the piece has an urban planning or racial history bent, exceptionally lively writing, and/or plentiful illustrations. Now we're talking.
- Literary fiction is also good. Short story collections preferred.
- Work that centers the experiences of PoC, women, and/or queer people would be extra great.
- Tonal extremes, I'd love to avoid. Friend would hate anything about Vegas that's fakey happy or "FUCK YEAH PARTY AWESOME"y, but I also don't want to hand them material that's ridiculously depressing. Friend would appreciate an honest eye, not glittering cotton candy; on the other hand, utter cynicism (however honest) is not going to be helpful right now. I'd also prefer to avoid pieces that dwell relentlessly on either addiction or suicidal depression.
- I know I said no tourist guides, but if anyone knows of a solid NFT-style guide for Vegas (particularly if it at all has a "Vegas for the Vegas-Skeptic" vibe)...I'd love to hear.

Already rejected:

- Leaving Las Vegas
- The Cold Six Thousand

Maybe pile:

- Claire Vaye Watkins's Battleborn. Regretfully, I haven't yet read from this collection, but it came immediately to mind because Nevada. From what I gather, Las Vegas is not part of its scope—Y/N? Even so, I feel this might interest Friend. Any thoughts from those who've read these stories?

I know that's a lot of info to take in, but is anyone sitting on some excellent writing about Las Vegas that you'd love to share?
posted by desert outpost to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Is there a reason you're not considering Fear and Loathing?
posted by saladin at 2:50 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

A major part of The Goldfinch takes place in Las Vegas. It is very much about someone unexpectedly moving to Las Vegas against their wishes, and learning to appreciate its strange beauty.
posted by Jellybean_Slybun at 2:58 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

(Far from short, though. But maybe your friend could just read the Vegas chapters which are very descriptive and nuanced)
posted by Jellybean_Slybun at 2:59 PM on August 27, 2018

About a Mountain!
posted by attentionplease at 3:03 PM on August 27, 2018

Battleborn does have stories involving Las Vegas, and I loved the book. However, the bits involving Vegas are pretty dark (cw: sexual assault).

Gold Fame Citrus, a novel by the same author, is great and I don't remember it being as dark, although it's been a while. It isn't set in Las Vegas, however.
posted by momus_window at 3:15 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Joan Didion has written about Vegas (in Slouching towards Bethlehem, and maybe elsewhere). David Foster Wallace has written about Vegas. Barbara Kingsolver's Pigs in Heaven (fiction) takes part partly in Vegas.
posted by pinochiette at 3:17 PM on August 27, 2018

Here's the checklist from a recent exhibit of fiction set in Las Vegas.

I hope your friend does not suffer as much as you anticipate they will. There's more going on than is reflected in pop culture.
posted by zepheria at 3:49 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Both of Laura McBride's novels look more deeply at a range of experiences in LV.
posted by zepheria at 4:05 PM on August 27, 2018

Additionally, your friend might be encouraged to hear that the Black Mountain Institute is now based in Las Vegas, which means a lot of great literary events/readings. And also the Believer Festival.
posted by attentionplease at 5:07 PM on August 27, 2018

Learning from Las Vegas is something of a classic.
posted by kickingtheground at 5:23 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I came to suggest Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, if you're open to a book about gambling that's not set in Vegas, but found this joint review of that book and 24/7: Living It Up and Doubling Down in the New Las Vegas, which looks it might better fit your requirements.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 5:36 PM on August 27, 2018

Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season by John Gregory Dunne - husband of Joan Didion.
posted by JonJacky at 7:38 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Las Vegas is my hometown and I went to college there. A few of the professors in the UNLV History department worked on an African American Experience project for the city. I checked their bibliography page and found a few of the books they referenced on Amazon here:

Beyond the Glimmering Lights: Pride and Perseverance of African Americans in Las Vegas
The Moulin Rouge and Black Rights in Las Vegas

Historic West Las Vegas has such a rich history for the African American community. I loved learning about the first integrated hotel, Moulin Rouge, and how it helped West Las Vegas thrive. But your friend might see how present-day West Las Vegas has never recovered from the recession.
posted by Become A Silhouette at 10:57 PM on August 27, 2018

In addition: Documenting the African American Experience in Las Vegas

Not a list of books, but this is such a rich collection of stories online that shows the meaningful contributions of the black community to the city of Las Vegas.
posted by Become A Silhouette at 11:02 PM on August 27, 2018

This one may be a bit leftfield but journalist Victoria Coren Mitchell's For Richer for Poorer is her memoir of life as a middle-class Londoner on the international poker circuit in the 2000s.

It includes a lot of time spent in the grittier parts of Las Vegas, playing poker with stallwarts. It's not a hatchet job but it does have some great observations of the personalities that gather around the tournaments, and some of the workings behind them.
posted by freya_lamb at 4:01 AM on August 28, 2018

Bonnie Tsui's American Chinatown includes Las Vegas as one of the 5 covered in the book.
posted by abrightersummerday at 12:58 PM on August 28, 2018

Thanks so much, all! Knew you guys would come through. Some of these would never have been on my radar.

I hope some of these titles might interest my friend. And I do genuinely hope they'll have a better time than they fear. It's very encouraging to hear about some of the cultural stuff going on out there; I knew there had to be something, but had no real-life Las Vegans to ask.
posted by desert outpost at 3:54 PM on August 28, 2018

Read Matthew C. O'Brien's work. It's literary nonfiction by a native.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 5:28 PM on August 28, 2018

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