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Remembering Literary Las Vegas



A milestone of sorts passed quietly this year — so quietly that the man responsible for it missed it himself. Here’s how Mike Tronnes, who concoted the anthology Literary Las Vegas, published in August 1995, responded when I asked him about it last month: “Add even me to the list of people who didn’t notice the 20th anniversary!”

Perhaps the lack of fanfare isn’t surprising. The volume’s been out of print for a long while; not even an e-book exists. It’s been superseded by a long shelf of subsequent literary treatments of Vegas. And it’s not universally considered canonical: It didn’t rate a mention in a January Review-Journal story headlined “Books you must read to understand Las Vegas” (though local lawyer/poet Dayvid Figler stuck up for it in the comment thread). And 1995 was a big year for cultural depictions of Las Vegas: Casino, Leaving Las Vegas, Showgirls.

Still, I can’t let 2015 wind down without a backward-looking hat-tip to a book that tried very hard, and in some ways succeeded, in codifying a wide-ranging, literary approach to Las Vegas. I mean, listen to the names! Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, A.J. Liebling, Noel Coward, John Gregory Dunne, Susan Berman, Hunter S. Thompson — that’s a drumbeat of bylines any reader can dance to. (Indeed, Tronnes says, getting all those permissions was his hardest task.)

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Back then, he was the ad manager for counterculture magazine The Utne Reader, traveling to Vegas for conventions. In boning up on the city, he saw how many noteworthy writers had rolled through town, “taking their shots at connecting Las Vegas to some greater story of America.” It was Michael Ventura’s piece “Las Vegas: The Odds on Anything” that got him thinking about a book. Here’s a quick belt: “So I can see myself,” Ventura wrote, “at the Flamingo maybe, shelling out money that I didn’t know I didn’t have, tipping big, blowing a couple of hundred a clip at roulette, squandering with a  vengeance — the way only a poor kid can — and doing this with an equally vengeful Otherwise Married Woman.”

That echoes Noel Coward’s observation: “… beams of light shoot down from baroque ceilings on the masses of earnest morons flinging their money down the drain.”

Or howzabout Albert Goldman describing Elvis watching Barbra Streisand in a Vegas showroom: “When it was all over, he turned to Lamar Fike and said two words: ‘She sucks!’ Then, he went downstairs to the dressing room to tell Barbra how much he had enjoyed the performance.”

That’s just a sampling of the many modalities open to writers taking on Sin City. “That’s what was so amazing to me,” Tronnes says now from his home in the Twin Cities, where he holds a municipal government job, “all the different ways you could write about Las Vegas.” He found more stories in disparate places — old magazines, essay collections, chunks of novels. Print still being alive in the mid-’90s, an anthology seemed the natural step.

It’s not a perfect book, I’ll stipulate; some pieces seem outdated in 2015, and a few others are outright stinkers. But it deserves respect as one of the earliest attempts to forge so many fugitive Vegas writings into a foundation beneath the idea of Las Vegas as a worthy literary subject.

Tronnes had a sequel in mind, too — titled Reading Las Vegas: A Literary Junket to America’s Desert Kingdom, it was to focus on fiction and poetry — but couldn’t get it off the ground. Too bad, too, because that one also had a potential Division 1 starting lineup: J.G. Ballard, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Denis Johnson, Joyce Carol Oates, Larry McMurtry, Bruce Jay Friedman, David Guterson, Allen Ginsberg, Diane Wakoski and more. Without apparent bitterness, he blames its aborted launch on skittish publishers, anthologies rarely being money-makers, and the dawn of the Internet, “basically one big anthologizer.”

For its part, Vegas has changed, too. Back in Wolfe’s day, the city was such a potent, distilled essence of Americanness — though fenced off from the rest of the country like a game preserve — that exploring it in words still offered a sense of discovery. Now, Tronnes points out, Vegas has been mainstreamed, or, more accurately, the mainstream has gone so thoroughly Vegas (spectacle everywhere!) that it no longer seems quite so fresh to diagnose the larger culture using Vegas as your biopsy.

Tronnes has only been back to the city once in those 20 years, but the book still has an affect on him. “Whenever I hear ‘Las Vegas,’” he says, “my ears perk up and I listen.”