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Desert Companion

Zeit bites: Matters of choice

Decisions echo across decades for the women in Laura McBride’s “honest Las Vegas tale,” ’Round Midnight

Laura McBrideNear the end of ’Round Midnight, after an armed confrontation, a police negotiator reflects: “Crazy town. Crazy, crazy town.”

He’s talking about Las Vegas, of course. Because, of course, it is crazy.

This is not the snarky outsider’s contempt that Las Vegans learn to endure or ignore, but rather the local’s acceptance that it is indeed a rather peculiar place, but in ways visitors cannot appreciate. Author Laura McBride, who flashed valley savvy in 2014’s We Are Called to Rise, knows whereof she writes because she lives here and teaches at the College of Southern Nevada. Nothing about the hostage scene is Vegas-y — an ex-lover might be threatening a homeowner and her maid in Boise right now — but the city Benny and Bugsy built is the only setting for this standoff. And maybe it’s something about Las Vegas that renders the climax somewhat anticlimactic.

Set in a fading, older hotel-casino, ’Round Midnight (Touchstone, $25.99) carries its characters through three generations, each of three parts opening in the Midnight Room of the El Capitan, in 1960, 1992, and 2010. The name suggests the El Cortez, although McBride locates it south of Downtown. In any event, the once swanky casino-hotel decays as choices made in and about it propel puzzled characters through secrets and regrets. The main characters plunge on because it is life’s only option, to cast behind them their compromised desires and troubled memories.

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At the novel’s core is June Stein, a restless young woman who flees her hometown in the late 1950s for Las Vegas and Odell Dibb, her husband and partner in the El Capitan. Their mysterious backer is the only nod at Mob Vegas, and he appears to be behind the death of Odell’s old friend and the beating up and exile of Eddie Knox, the Midnight Club’s popular singer. June and Eddie get it on, and when June turns up pregnant with her second child, she’s pretty sure it’s Odell’s, but she’s wrong. And it is clear immediately because Eddie is black. Las Vegas is just awakening to its racism — McBride name-checks the Moulin Rouge — and a white casino owner’s wife just can’t have a black child, sorry.

Orphaned daughter Coral grows up in a black family, but learns in the book’s middle section that her mother, Augusta, actually took her in when she was just days old. Coral discovers almost accidentally that she can sing — it’s in the genes, right? — and does so in San Francisco, but comes home to Las Vegas to teach music in a portable trailer and to wrestle with who she is. “It was true that her heart could still skitter unevenly if she thought of the instant before Augusta said yes to keeping her,” McBride writes, reflecting on just one of the book’s dire choices and fates. June wonders: “And really, where was the moment that should have happened differently? Which was the choice that had set all the others in motion? And would a different choice have been the right one?”

Another lamentable choice leads Honorata Navarro from her village in the Philippines to Manila, to Chicago, and eventually Las Vegas, where luck (and where else?) threads her fate into June’s and Coral’s. Honorata’s narrative also edges into that of Engracia Montoya, housekeeper at the El Capitan and native of another long-ago Spanish colony. Her undocumented husband has been deported, and her son has died after falling off a skateboard. Honorata’s relating of this defuses the climactic face-off.

A gambling-addict Roman Catholic priest occasionally drifts downstage as both witness and agent. Neither Father Burns nor McBride is preachy, but redemption in doing the right thing, the solace of accepting fate, perhaps, echoes through ’Round Midnight. McBride crafts passages of sterling imagery and diction, but can be self-consciously writerly, too. Mostly, though, she tells an honest Las Vegas tale about life and fate, with characters, not caricatures.