Fear and Literati in Las Vegas: On ‘The Believer’s’ Move to Sin City

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ZZ Packer donned a judge’s robe and banged the gavel for a trial argument-themed reading inside an old federal courthouse. Later, Miranda July read aloud the sexual fantasies of 30 women in her audience. And before each of those, Luís Alberto Urrea shared psalms about his Tijuana childhood as hummingbirds bobbed, a coyote yipped, and the sun fell behind sandstone bluffs at Red Rock Canyon, where the first reading took place.

The “American Dreams” festival on April 21 to 22 in Las Vegas was as quirky, earnest, and sprawling an occasion as you’d expect from a happening co-organized by The Believer magazine and Black Mountain Institute (BMI), the literary center based at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Jim James from My Morning Jacket performed. And Dave Eggers interviewed Carrie Brownstein about her serial reinventions as a rock star, writer, actor, director, and wedding officiator. Young talents from UNLV’s creative writing program and McSweeney’s 826 workshops took the stage. The inaugural event was a welcome twist on the staid book-fest format. But it was the weekend’s nuptial vibe that left me, and other local and visiting writers, most intrigued for what’s yet to come.

After 14 years in the McSweeney’s family The Believer is moving to Las Vegas to be edited and published at BMI. Joshua Wolf Shenk, the institute’s executive director, joked during “American Dreams” that the two had started dating during the festival planning process, and this being the wedding capital of the world, they’ve decided to elope. The magazine’s founders, Vendela Vida and Heidi Julavits, will act as consultants while Shenk — author of Lincoln’s Melancholy and Powers of Two — will serve as editor. The Believer was on a printing hiatus in 2016 but will re-launch in that form on August 1. As before, its contributors will be based around the U.S., but BMI is seeking a managing editor to work from Las Vegas.

To recap for those who are skeptical: Yes, a national arts and culture magazine that prides itself on earnestness will be headquartered in Sin City. Indeed, Las Vegas has a thriving literary community (which, ahem, also includes the lit journal I help edit, Witness). The fact that there’s a “Man Bites Dog” newsyness to some of this is precisely why it has transformative potential.

The vows columns might note that The Believer and Las Vegas share a certain weirdness, both being colorful products that were designed to spite the landscapes that bore them. A wedding toast might say that bringing indie culture to the ultimate resort town is a great McSweeneyian adventure. But who cares about that? I’m excited for it because Las Vegas is always troubled, always relevant, and so an ideal place for the literati to set-up a magazine bureau.

Julavits, The Believer’s founding editor, said during a pop-up reading on the eve of “American Dreams” that Las Vegas was already the magazine’s spiritual home. One of its most-heralded (or depending on your view of fact-checking, notorious) essays was John D’Agata’s “What Happens There” about a Las Vegas teen suicide and the affecting, tawdry details that surrounded it. That essay’s title nicely deleted Sin City’s promise to keep all misdeeds local, and the book adaptation, About A Mountain, followed suit with a collage of facts and interviews that evoke stark human truths about Southern Nevada. The region’s economic woes, toxic policies, social isolation, and impending environmental crises have rarely been so poetically aggregated. But that book came out in 2010. Here are some 2016-2017 facts about Nevada’s national standing that deserve a fresh look: third highest unemployment rate in the U.S., number one in underemployment, sixth in home foreclosures, third highest drug overdose and suicide rates, number one in gambling addiction, 51st in public education.

Hopes are that while The Believer will remain unfettered in its scope, Las Vegas will influence its creative and moral urgencies if not directly inspire another essay or two. More than 75 percent of the state’s population lives in the Las Vegas Valley, where there’s obviously much to glean about the American experience. Nevada also has the largest percentage of undocumented immigrants in the nation, a tense urban-rural divide, public lands fights, and a water shortage attributed to climate change. During his savage journey into this desert Hunter S. Thompson stated that the American dream resides “somewhere in the Las Vegas area” — not somewhere on the strip. Yet when it comes fiction, festival participant Laura McBride’s debut book We Are Called to Rise, Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, and Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch are the only recent novels I can think of that captured this city as more than a row of shimmeringtowers packed with gamblers and prostitutes.

At a bar in the El Cortez, Las Vegas’s oldest and most-revered budget casino, right before the pop-up reading on the festival’s eve, I listened to the local poet and festival reader Angelo Ligori riff about the way people describe the building’s smell. “It’s always like cigarette ash and broken dreams,” he said, “carpet cleaner and addiction, perfume and sadness — a specific detail and like a grim takeaway.” I laughed, knowing I’m guilty of those myself. Yet I prefer former BMI fellow Timothy O’Grady’s assessment that casinos are “like morgues for the half-dead,” my own footnote being that thanks to a few strong unions, the resorts also allow tens of thousands of low-skill workers to enjoy middle-class lives. While Vegas is known as a “last chance city for last chance people,” it’s a place, too, where a cocktail waitress can provide her kids with good healthcare and purchase a home.

Locals are keen for Vegas stories that show more depth and nuance, and which look beyond the stip. At the El Cortez event the readers had to compete with slot machine bells and jackpot music every time a door opened to the room, which encapsulated the challenge writers face in breaking through the cacophony of noise and lights that leave anyone curious about this city googly-eyed. Taking instead a bird’s-eye view reveals how pernicious that distraction can be. Both Donald Trump and Steve Wynn, the Republican National Committee’s finance chair, have their names written in gold letters on the skyline, and Nevada’s largest newspaper was purchased in 2016 by their ally, billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. A local first-amendment lawyer once told me this is the last American oligarchy; anyone interested in exploring that issue should fly out. But, to ride the bird-eye metaphor to its grave, it’s also a place where light pollution kills. Birds come here to feed on moths and end up smacking into reflective glass.

Fortunately, “American Dreams” wasn’t devoid of politics. At the courthouse reading ZZ Packer delivered a farcical New York Times bestseller list for the Trump era in which books like What to Expect When You’re Expecting Political Change and To Russia with Love made the cut. At the Red Rock Canyon reading, Heidi Julavits shared a madcap sex dream involving the 45th president, and then when a helicopter flew overhead, she yelled, “Oh f—, here he comes!” There were immigration stories and lyrical calls for resistance. By turns poignant and gonzo, it offered the boost of idealism, humor, and anger that Southern Nevada has been desperate for.

At one point Brownstein said, “Las Vegas is a good place to cry alone in your car.” That joke rubbed some locals the wrong way. But if, when The Believer settles in, it turns its gaze on this landscape, with more how and why to go with that quickie gross impression, perhaps the same locals will shed a few cathartic tears.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Viva Las Vegas: On Getting an MFA in Sin City

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The casino is the anti-writing space: a room designed to intoxicate, lull, distract from rather than encourage critical thought. When I left New York three years ago to pursue a master’s in creative writing at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, several friends advised that I avoid the so-called “green felt jungle”.

“Don’t blow your funding on a roulette spin!” I heard a lot of jokes in that vein. My friends were being 100 percent facetious: I’d visited Atlantic City just once during eight years in New York. I was notoriously frugal and didn’t even play fantasy football. I was not a gambler. And I think about that now every time I lose at blackjack or craps. When I’m taken for a fish at poker. I think about it often.

The thing is, I’m not one of those writers who thrive in quiet solitude. Although I work fine at home during the day, by nightfall, it’s the boisterous din of a bar or cafe that keeps my muse awake. In Las Vegas, those outings often lead past blinking casino marquees, neon-lit gaming floors packed with seductively plinking slot machines and tuxedoed dealers doling out chips for groups of hooting patrons that, I figure, might as well include me.

There is a certain writerly allure to casino gambling that I find difficult to resist — or perhaps I should call it a not writing allure. Having a crowd chant my name as I shoot dice is not something I’ll ever experience revising sentences in the UNLV library. The perfect supplement to the fragile joy of editing the 19th draft of a short story that really has potential this time is winning a hand of poker by going all in, taking another man’s stack while the competition looks on, envious and impressed.

I met my girlfriend in the MFA program, and we developed a routine early on in our relationship. After a late writing session, I’d ask if she wanted to visit a casino “just to check out the tables,” as if a sign would be posted announcing that we’d surely, definitely, probably win. “Oh yeah. I mean if you want to,” she’d say. Next time, it would be her turn to instigate, my night to acquiesce.

They say gambling is all about odds, but the only statistic we paid attention to was the 50 percent chance this routine allowed us to enter a casino in the passive role of a supportive boyfriend or girlfriend. Going bust always sucks, but it’s significantly less depressing to leave as an unlucky tag-along than as a shamed provocateur. That, fellow bettors, is a losing combo.

So we became regulars at the El Cortez — an old mobster casino now frequented by geriatrics, budget travelers, and locals like us who can’t afford the higher stakes action on the Strip. It smelled of expired perfume and decades of cigarette smoke, but I didn’t mind. Attuned instead to the buzz of risk in the air, I chased winning roulette numbers and made sloppy bets at blackjack and craps. Roaming under soft pink lights, I moved from one cold table to the next, begging croupiers to “go easy on me!” It’s standard practice to blame the dealer for a miserable run and apparently against the rules for her to explain each game’s miserable odds.

Channeling the ghost of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (the patron saint of writers who moonlight as problem gamblers), we started visiting a bigger, seamier resort that also offered sports betting and poker. It was named Terrible’s Hotel & Casino, and that’s precisely how it went.

So why do it? As a graduate assistant, I made a fraction of what I earned as a journalist in New York (and I felt poor there!). So what was I thinking? The short answer is: I don’t know. Whether gambling is physically or psychologically addictive is still subject to debate. Some blame the appeal on endorphins released during games of chance, while others say compulsive gambling results from a mental itch to repeat reward acts. I won’t wade too far into that except to say that though I can certainly attest to a physical rush (as anyone who’s ever played bingo can), for me, it’s all about a want and need to socialize, to wind down. In contrast to the cerebral work of crafting fiction or reading a dense novel, gambling is a mindless diversion. Forget that this is exactly how casinos want you to approach their games. Never mind that a professional card player demonstrates the sober, calculating adroitness of a mathematician when a new hand is dealt. I’m not him. I play for fun. Haruki Murakami runs marathons, the great Amy Hempel volunteers at animal shelters, and Flannery O’Connor had her Catholic faith. Me, I toss plastic chips onto green felt.

Part of gambling’s appeal is that a writing life requires so much waiting. You wait six months for a submission to be rejected, wait for that rare story that is accepted to finally come out, wait for agents to notice your “exciting new voice,” wait for another round of rejections, wait for readers to respond to your work. It’s as tortuous as listening to Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain” while running on a treadmill. Then take the long view. I’ll probably need 10 years to recognize whether the MFA experience panned out. Not so with that 20 bucks on red or this double down on 11.

“Bad beats” — those gambling losses that should have been wins — can always be written-off as research anyway. Is there a more fitting metaphor for the American experience than the action playing out on a casino floor? In poker rooms, people with little money are regularly bullied around by high rollers whose towers of chips clearly mean nothing to them. Two of the business world’s most annoying clichés ring true in that corner of the casino: It takes money to make money, so the rich get richer.

I prefer craps, where players win or lose together; “hot dice” act as icebreakers, and people who’d never meet on the street forge unions that span age, race, and class on rare occasions when collective optimism seems finally enough to beat the dreaded house — that oligarchy upstairs.

In his novel The Gambler, Dostoyevsky writes: “I had come [to the casino] not only to look at, but also to number myself sincerely and wholeheartedly with, the mob. As for my secret moral views, I had no room for them amongst my actual, practical opinions.”

He, too, used trips to smoky grottos like the El Cortez and Terrible’s as occasions to study politics and psychology. I should add, though, that Dostoyevsky was also a hopeless roulette addict who published The Gambler to pay back creditors who threatened to keep the rights to his literary output for nine years. Although marketed as fiction, The Gambler is, in fact, a roman à clef about the author’s own tortured self-deception, the kind inherent in gambling addict platitudes like, “It’s okay. I don’t have a problem. I can win it back.”

He didn’t win it back. It merits repeating (at least for my own sake) that Dostoyevsky wrote his way out of that problem by delivering a book in 30 days, succeeding through work in lieu of luck. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Teaching on a campus where 75 percent of the student body grew up in Las Vegas is instructive, too. It’s not uncommon to receive an English 101 essay from someone whose father had a blackjack habit so crippling, his tearful mother gathered the kids and moved out. A creative writing student once submitted a poem about children who rescue their mother from a castle that sounds an awful lot like The Excalibur Hotel & Casino, where she’s held captive by a monster that flashes and jingles like a slot machine.

Here’s the part of the essay where I admit that gambling is not always interesting, always novel. Broke and angry and ashamed is also no way to spend graduate school, so I’ve cut back on trips to the green felt jungle. I prefer to explore weird Vegas as a journalist now, a role that begs a certain professional distance.

When I chose to move here, I did so partially inspired by Nevada’s vulgar brand of escapism because there’s something oddly poetic in the concept of a Sin City in the desert. Its bright lights and dark alleys offer a striking and sometimes horrific tour of the American id. But I merely wanted to study these traits, not emulate them. Going up and then down, then down, and down again was not part of the plan. Yet the MFA program has allowed my Vegas bet to pay off, even when it hasn’t. The people I’ve come to consider friends and mentors consistently prove that one can succeed as a writer in Las Vegas without indulging on its buffet of vices (well, not overindulging anyway).

I will say this, though: You learn to deal with rejection amidst the neon, which is good. In writing, as in gambling, when starting out you’ll probably lose more often than you’ll win. The key is to survive long enough to hit a winning streak, and if that day comes with my fiction, I’ll increase the wager by putting in longer hours at my desk, I’ll decline drink offers. Submit more.

The hope is that I’m a better with words than I am with dice or cards. Otherwise that slogan about “what happens in Vegas” will apply to my writing as well.

Image Credit: Pixabay.