About a Mountain

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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.

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