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Las Vegas

Vegas tugs on the imagination like few other places. A sin city journalist tells us about innocent beginnings, muckraking and mobsters, and how Vegas has changed through boom and bust

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    1

    How I Got Cultured
    by Phyllis Barber

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    2

    The Green Felt Jungle
    by Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris

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    3

    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
    by Hunter S Thompson

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    4

    Leaving Las Vegas
    by John O’Brien

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    5

    Lay the Favorite
    by Beth Raymer

Matthew O’Brien

Matthew O’Brien is an American author and journalist. He has lived in Las Vegas since 1997 and written two books about it, Beneath the Neon and My Week at the Blue Angel. From 2000 to 2008, he worked for the city’s alternative weekly, Las Vegas City Life. O’Brien received the Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame and was named Outstanding Journalist by the Nevada Press Association

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Matthew O’Brien

Matthew O’Brien is an American author and journalist. He has lived in Las Vegas since 1997 and written two books about it, Beneath the Neon and My Week at the Blue Angel. From 2000 to 2008, he worked for the city’s alternative weekly, Las Vegas City Life. O’Brien received the Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame and was named Outstanding Journalist by the Nevada Press Association

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In the 19th century, visitors stopped in Las Vegas for water and rest on their way west. Vegas became a railroad stop in 1905 and a gambling centre by mid-century. Tell us about the place now known internationally as “sin city”.

As you point out, the city developed rather quickly from a whistle stop on the railroad to a major international destination. I’ve only been here about 14 years but it’s been remarkable to see the changes in just that time. The old-timers – who have lived here for 30, 40, 50 years – they remember when it was almost all desert dotted with a few neighbourhoods and casinos and how it just sprawled out. Since I’ve been here there’s been a boom. As real estate prices were rising and tourism was increasing, the city sprawled at a scary rate. I’ve also seen the bust, since the recession. Over the past three to four years, the city slowed down – tourist numbers dropped, gambling revenue declined and real estate values plunged. So it’s been quite a rollercoaster ride during the years that I’ve been here, for me and for a lot of other people here too.

You’ve cited five books that take us from mid-century to modern day. Let’s start with a reminder of what Nevada was before the neon on the strip started to outshine the rest of the state. Tell us about the memoir of Phyllis Barber, How I Got Culture.

It’s a unique book. First, a woman wrote it – men write most books about this town. Second, it’s about someone who grew up mostly in Boulder City but also in Las Vegas, someone who had a normal upbringing. A lot of the literature on Vegas is about strange dysfunctional characters, even clichés. I think what I like most about this book is just how unexpected it is. It’s a beautifully written memoir about a young Mormon coming of age in the Las Vegas of the 1950s.

What does this book tell us about the state that surrounds the strip and the friction between the state’s Mormon roots and the mores of its gambling centres?

She grew up in a Mormon family while Vegas was becoming a sacrilegious place in a lot of ways and she struggled with religion. It’s not one of those over the top stories – it’s a very minimalist tale about growing up here and struggles with normal stuff like trying to make the dance team at high school. But it’s written so beautifully that the story carries you along and it does give you a sense of the time and the place.

Mormons don’t have quite the influence in Nevada that they used to have. They are influential in law, banking and other businesses but not as influential in tourism or gaming.

The Green Felt Jungle

, by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris, exposes the underground criminal activity that undergirded the development of the gaming industry in Las Vegas. Please introduce us to the book, first published in 1963, starting with its title.

The opening line is: “Las Vegas is a city in statistics only. In every other respect it’s a jungle.” The green felt refers to the covering of the gaming tables. The book documents the corruption in the city during the 1950s and the connection between the Mob and many hotel-casinos.

As the opening sentence suggests, it’s kind of pulpy. But it’s also good old-fashioned investigative journalism. Back in the day, muckraking was pretty dangerous. Few were really willing to take on the Mob – that could lead to some bad situations, even death. We don’t even see this kind of writing in Las Vegas very often any more. Now we have a corporate mob that cause publications to fear losing advertising, which seems to be as frightening to them as a threat to break legs. So looking at this book now, it really stands out as good old-fashioned investigative journalism that we don’t see enough of nowadays, particularly in Las Vegas. Plus there’s some personality and vibrancy to the writing which I appreciate.

Can you give me a sense of the pulp that readers will find within the book about great mob figures?

Benny Binion and Bugsy Siegel were like founding fathers for the city. A lot of criminal types were able to come here and not just conduct business but also have a public persona and become active members in the communities.

Casino billionaires like Steve Wynn seem to have displaced mobsters like Bugsy Siegel as the dominant sin city figures. Is organised crime still important to the functioning of the city? And how has the rise of casino billionaires affected the city?

One of the myths about the city is that the Mob still runs the place. Locals kind of laugh at that. Most of us know that in the 1960s and 70s Howard Hughes started buying up these casinos and buying out the Mob. That led the way to corporations taking over casinos. So most locals know that the old mob is gone and that the corporate mob has taken over. You’ll even hear long-time locals lament the fact that organised crime is no longer in charge of the town. A common refrain is things were better when the Mob ran things – meaning crime was isolated to the mobsters knocking each other off in cities outside Las Vegas.

People like Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn seem very influential in the city, politically. But one complaint locals make, not specifically about Wynn and Adelson necessarily but just about these corporations in general, is that they set up shop here and make billions of dollars but not enough money is put back into the community. So behind a billion-dollar resort you’ll have a playground that is falling apart or a school that’s underachieving. That’s one of the frustrations many locals have.

Onto Hunter S Thompson’s fictionalised account of a man and his attorney’s extended drug and alcohol fuelled visit

.

It was written in 1971 and has been selling well ever since. Tell us about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

It’s one of my favourite books and probably my favourite Las Vegas-related book. Hunter S Thompson came out here in the early 70s to cover the Mint 400 off-road race for Sports Illustrated. He ended up writing a 10,000-word riff on his visit. In 1971, Jann Wenner ultimately published two long sections of it in Rolling Stone. Those two stories were the foundation for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

We have so many reporters that parachute into town, spend two to three days on the Strip and think they know enough to write the definitive piece about Las Vegas. Thompson came out here for weeks at a time and was able to capture the essence of the city. The language is raw and unique and funny and I just think it’s a masterpiece, an American classic.

Thompson is the revered father of “gonzo journalism”. Please define the term for the style he created and which so many have emulated.

I was talking about this with another local writer a month or so ago about how people think “gonzo journalism” is a popular genre. I agreed with this writer that, although many had tried it, no one but Thompson could pull off gonzo journalism. Thompson was able to write himself into the stories that were real, raw and profane. He, along with his illustrator Ralph Steadman, created this hybrid of journalism and fiction.

You actually got to interview Hunter S Thompson. Tell us about meeting him.

When I was working at the local alternative weekly City Life I came up with the idea of using Fear and Loathing as a guide to what was left of the city Thompson saw, what had changed, and what never really was. I was a big fan of the book so I wanted to find traces of Hunter S Thompson’s Las Vegas.

I called his publicist repeatedly to try to set up an interview. It was a long process – I had to keep calling her back and she kept saying, “Thompson likes the story idea. He’ll give you a call. What’s your deadline?” He was notorious for missing deadlines and he missed a few with me. I had given up on interviewing him for the piece when one morning the phone rang at about 1:30 and the guy on the other end said, “This is your neighbour Mr Jones, would you please get the goddamn music down.” I said, “I’m sorry I don’t have any music on.” The man said, “Just get the music down.” I said, “Look, man, it’s not my apartment.” He said, “Is this O’Brien?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Hunter S Thompson.”

We ended up speaking for about an hour. He was my tour guide to the city so I asked him questions about his time in Las Vegas and if stuff in the book was real or not real and what he remembered. It was a big thrill for me. I wrote a 7,000-word story, “Hunting Hunter”, about searching for traces of Hunter S Thompson in modern-day Las Vegas. It’s in my latest book My Week At the Blue Angel. He gave me really good anecdotes from his time out here but also asked me questions about what Las Vegas was like in my time, what the hep drugs were and stuff like that.

Fear and Loathing

is subtitled “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream”. What does Vegas have to do with the American Dream?

A few things come to mind on that. The book is more than a drug trip in Vegas – it’s a eulogy for the counterculture of the 1960s and their American dream of changing the world, getting out of Vietnam and beating racism. But also Vegas, by the 70s, and into this new century, came to represent a place where you could go to get that American dream. Not just getting rich at the gaming tables. You could come out here with very little education, and maybe a chequered past, and get a job on the Strip in the service industry making more than $50,000 a year and be able to get a home in the suburbs with three bedrooms and a pool. Vegas was part of the American dream in that way for a while – but that’s changed with the recession.

The preface of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas quotes Samuel Johnson: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” Is that the secret to the success of the city? That visitors feel they can come and sin and then, as the marketing catchphrase says, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”?

Vegas had a family tourism marketing push in the 1990s. “What happens here stays here” was a clear shift back to adult themes. People do come here to cut loose. As a local it can be annoying but at the same time we all realise that’s the reason why this unlikely city is here.

Like Fear and Loathing, Leaving Las Vegas was made into a major Hollywood movie. Tell us about this novel by John O’Brien (no relation).

I saw the movie first and thought it was a depressing but beautiful film. The book is a short, beautiful novel, a sad and beautiful love story. Usually, red flags go up for me when I see a Vegas book or movie with a prostitute and a drunk as the two main characters – it’s a bit clichéd and I’m bored with those kind of tales. But there was something different about Leaving Las Vegas. It felt real.

It’s about a man who comes to the city to drink himself to death. The author committed suicide himself, two weeks after finding out that his first book would be made into a film.

How depressing is this book?

The protagonist, Ben, is at least loosely based on O’Brien from what I’ve read about him. He had a drinking problem and I wouldn’t be shocked if he went in a similar way to the character Ben. The novel is sad but there’s something about finishing a beautiful book that leaves you fulfilled in some strange way. That’s how I felt after finishing Leaving Las Vegas.

How important are intoxicants to the life of the city and its industry?

Probably not as important as people think. Vegas has changed over the years – we’re getting more of the typical American couple and even families. They come out here not even necessarily to gamble. Non-gambling revenue recently passed gambling revenue. People are coming out here more for the restaurants, the shows, the shopping and the spectacle of the Strip. But of course alcohol is [often] free if you’re at a slot machine or a gaming table. It still is that place where people come to party.

Let’s talk about today’s Las Vegas as captured by Beth Raymer in her 2010 memoir, Lay the Favorite. What is it about?

It’s about a young girl who moves out here with her boyfriend. Then they break up and she’s in need of work and unsure what to do, and she comes across a job opportunity as an assistant to a sports bettor. It’s about her experiences in this male dominated sports betting world.

Is sports betting an important part of the overall gambling industry in Nevada? I know it’s one of the few American states where sports betting is legal.

It’s not considered one of the main types of gambling out here. A lot of money is made off baccarat, roulette, slots, craps, and blackjack. A sports book is a side attraction for tourists. The books do pretty well but not nearly as well as the slots and table games.

Raymer tells such a crackerjack of a story that her memoir has already been turned into a film by Stephen Frears. What recommends the written account over waiting to see the story in theatres?

You’re getting a female take on a male-dominated world. Raymer writes with a great sense of humour – there are tons of memorable one-liners.

Your two books about Vegas take readers far from the glitz of the Strip into the storm drains and the trailer parks where the underclass lives. Tell us about this side of Las Vegas that few visitors see.

I got bored with the Strip casinos and the strip malls out here pretty quickly and started working for Las Vegas City Life, where part of the mission was to find stories that weren’t covered by the mainstream media. Part of the challenge of being a writer out here is that the city is so overexposed. You have to really try to find a subject that hasn’t been covered before.

In the spring of 2002 I read about a murderer who had used the extensive underground flood channels – there are around 200 miles of them – beneath the city to evade the police. That got me really curious about what this guy may have experienced down in the tunnels. I took a flashlight, a tape recorder and an expandable baton for self-defence and explored the storm drains beneath the city.

When I first came up with the idea to explore them I thought maybe I would find some debris and graffiti. What I found was hundreds of men and women, from teenagers to senior citizens, living and hanging out in these underground flood channels. That was not common knowledge at the time.

My adventures down there are the basis of my first book, Beneath the Neon. The people I encountered shared their stories. Much of the history of Vegas is told by the “winners” – casino CEOs and real estate moguls. I wanted to get the perspective of the “losers” – people who moved here for that American dream that Thompson talked about and ended up addicted and living beneath the hotel-casinos that lured them to Las Vegas in the first place.

I know the bursting of the housing bubble and the financial crisis of 2008 and recession was particularly damaging to Las Vegas. How is the city adjusting to the challenges of the 21st century?

That’s the big question. I have pessimistic friends who say Nevada has a history of ghost towns – mining towns where all the minerals ran out and companies pulled up stakes and left. They say Vegas could be a ghost town in 20, 30, 40 years. Others are much more optimistic. They say things will be back to normal within the next five or six years. I don’t think the city will ever again experience the sort of boom it underwent in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But I think there will be more controlled growth.

You might be pulling up stakes yourself soon.

Like a lot of people, I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with Las Vegas. I like working here and writing here but I don’t always like living here so I may be leaving. It’s probably time. Like a lot of people, I came out here assuming I’d stay a year or two and move on. That was in 1997, back when you could work your way up pretty quickly at a newspaper if you were good and reliable. I think Vegas is still a city of opportunity and second chances – maybe just not as much as it was before.

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