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Desert Companion

Three books explore the dream of Las Vegas


Remember when Vegas was a crucible for reinvention? These authors do

At the heart of these three recently published books lies one question: “What kind of place is Las Vegas?” Gov. Bob Miller and former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman say they know. It’s the kind of town where hard-working people can do well.

Both Miller and Goodman dip their pens in nostalgia when they describe their early days in the hot, dusty little town where people all knew each other. Goodman loves the frontier spirit. Miller calls his father “a gambling man” and implies that his shady past was left behind in Chicago. He intends “Son of a Gambling Man” to be the tale of a working-class boy made good, but Miller admits his family was very comfortable — his father was well-placed in the casino elite as soon as he moved to Las Vegas because he was part of the outfit that owned the Riviera. Miller’s own star rose steadily: As Clark County district attorney in the ’70s, he parlayed that job into a successful law-and-order campaign that made him lieutenant governor. His biggest political break came when Gov. Richard Bryan was elected to the Senate and Miller became governor, serving the rest of Bryan’s term and two more in his own right. Despite that political longevity, Miller has little interest in policy. Large casino companies dominated the Strip by the time he went to Carson City, so he mostly sat back and watched Steve Wynn and others work their magic. As he reflects on his career, Miller praises the great opportunities in Las Vegas but more often he seems like a Forrest Gump knock-off — an average Joe in the right place at the right time. His prose exudes a plainness that often dulls his story.

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Oscar Goodman has always embraced his identity as a “mob lawyer.” Much of “Being Oscar: From Mob Lawyer to Mayor of Las Vegas” recounts his dogged defense of evildoers such as Tony Spilotro and Jimmy Chagra. The moral of all these stories is that law enforcement plays dirty and to keep them honest, Oscar fought the good fight. That said, Goodman makes little of his sudden decision to become a politician. Why did a man who obviously relished a fight, quit? Wealthy mobsters were still being indicted. Had they left Las Vegas? Were mobsters involved in unpalatable activities like drug dealing and child pornography? Or was it a more personal revulsion at a career of defending the indefensible? We never find out the cause of this mid-life epiphany — and perhaps it’s asking too much of a man as self-assured as the former Las Vegas mayor to reflect on his own self-doubt.

Former Las Vegas resident and academic geographer Rex Rowley has written a study to capture the experience of the “local.” In “Everyday Las Vegas: Local Life in a Tourist Town,” he emphasizes the big idea that Miller and Goodman embrace: The city remains an attractive boomtown for those seeking to make their fortune. Rowley examines some of the unhappier aspects of a gambling boomtown: how tourist temptations seduce many locals, and how any sense of community is crippled by the transience of those moving out of the region. He takes shots at some tenets of the locals’ faith: Gridlock is exaggerated and Las Vegas has become much less of a 24-hour town than many people imagine. On points such as this, Rowley succeeds in getting locals to see themselves anew. Rowley’s writing is accessible but often anecdotal, and that leads to inconclusive conclusions that some locals like this or that and, well … some don’t.

Ultimately, all three authors depict Las Vegas as the place where opportunity abounds and people can re-invent themselves. If the growth machine restarts, they’ll be right. Still, these books are suffused with a yearning for a Las Vegas that has passed away — and their promise of a bright future has to be taken largely on faith.

Bob Miller, Son of a Gambling Man
(St. Martin’s, $26)

Rex J. Rowley, Everyday Las Vegas: Local Life in a Tourist Town
(University of Nevada Press, $39.95)

Oscar Goodman, Being Oscar: From Mob Lawyer to Mayor of Las Vegas (Weinstein Books, $26)

Ian Mylchreest is senior producer of “KNPR’s State of Nevada.”

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