Dragonfish: A Novel

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

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.

A Year in Reading: Natashia Deón

When I think about the books I’ve read in 2016, the greatest have left me cut open, because I believe words are swords. Even hello and goodbye. Especially goodbye. And even curse words. But for my purposes, they’re swords against injustice, a voice to the marginalized — spoken or on a page, a wall, a tattoo.

I fear the silences.

The silence of those who feel unthreatened. That is, the silence of well meaning, “nice people” who want to get along, and who believe a disagreement or protest only means no peace, not a path to get there. I fear the silence of other Christians that I now hear so loud.  Those who only pray for the police and not the protestors. We need God all around.

When I was 19 years old, a boy in my college who was offended by the words I used after his assault said, “If you say anything, I will destroy you. I have more friends than you do.”

He was right about having more friends. In other words, he had more power and influence in that space, the same way politics and money have power over us. But at almost 40 years old now, I’ve lived long enough to have been destroyed before, and I can testify that sitting in silence is worse. In shame is worse. Had I known then what I know now, I would have chosen differently. I would have chosen for myself when and when not to be silent. Back then, his threat chose for me. But today, I’m different.

I believe that love casts out all fear. Including mine. And I believe the world is rigged in the favor of love. It is what will ultimately unify us. And I believe in hope. Active hope. And active love. Not just a feeling, but the kind of love that compels us to do something selflessly for the people we say we love and support. It should compel us to serve others, and if necessary, to stand in the gap for those who can’t. It’s an action word and still a sword.

Preferring love doesn’t mean to ignore other emotions, like this anger I know I carry. And if I’m honest, I try to carry it the same way I do my lust. I have become a container of longing. It’s redirection. It’s discipline. I know we don’t all have it. Not yet. I’ve read the biographies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I admire the way he carried his passions, but I’ve read about his failings, too. No one’s perfect.

I give these admissions of love and lust and anger to you because we are alive and there is so much to feel right now and to acknowledge and understand about others — there are no “others” — but not all of our emotion is helpful to what must be done in times of “no peace.” To stand in the gap for others, to get us along the road to move forward and help in some way.  Whether we feel personally threatened or not, we’ll have to recognize what our cleanest sustainable fuel is — the cleanest emotion. I think it’s love. For all other emotions, we’ll have to make time and a safe place to be reckless.

Books help to inform how I’ll love; where the need is outside of my own personal experience and circle of friends. So I’ve read so many good books in 2016, many are from marginalized groups, but not solely, and include women and people of color, and from the LGBTQIA communities, and from different religious and spiritual groups. But what I want to share with you are the books I’ll be bringing with me into the unknown of 2017.

For spiritual fuel…I’ll be bringing Timothy Keller’s book Prayer in order to pray for this world around me, including our president, the House and Senate and our judiciary, and for every group in our country that is living under extraordinary threat based on ethnicity or religion or sexual preference. For Native Americans. For women.  And I pray for those of us who are able to do something, even if it’s one thing or a handful of things, or many things. We can make a difference.

I’ll also be bringing Beth Moore’s book So Long Insecurity to remind myself of the courage we’ll all need to carry on. Beth Moore, a pastor, tirelessly and publicly stands up for women. And I’ll bring Judah Smith’s book Life Is______.

And last but not least, for spiritual fuel, I’ll be reading The Bible. Specifically, the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — books by men about a man who respected women from all walks of life, no matter the mistakes she’d made in her life, years ago or just moments ago. And in this way, I’ll remind myself of the kind of men who possess the love I’d put my faith and hope in, even if they don’t call themselves feminists.

For other strengths, I’ll be rereading Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and any of her essays, including one of my favorites called “Acts of Faith.” Ever since I read that essay for the first time last year, and learned of the existence of Jesuit Priests, I’ve considered converting to Catholicism just for them…and for the Pope. I enjoyed his recent book, The Name of God Is Mercy.

I’ll also be reading essays by Rebecca Solnit and finishing her book The Faraway Nearby because it says so much about the nature of us, of women, and our “place” in society and what we hope for. I’ll never forget the term she coined, “Mansplaining.” It sums up my professional life in the last year or so. Fourteen years as a lawyer in my field, and men will still feel compelled to explain the ropes of law practice to me. I let them. It allows me to rest.

I’ll be carrying We Love You Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge and Surveillance by Ashaki Jackson for the times I need to be reminded why I must keep walking. Why we all do.

To laugh, I will take Ayisha Malik’s new book, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. When I heard her read from it in London this summer, I was crying-laughing. The same as when I was flipping through the pages of Mary Laura Philpott’s book, Penguins with People Problems. I’ve read her book again and again like it was a squishy stress-relief toy. And, of course I’m taking the book Go the F**k to Sleep, which is essential reading for new parents who have protected their senses of humor from sleep deprivation. And I’ll take the book All My Friends Are Dead just to smile, and finally, I’ll finish Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley because it’s worth it. We need laughter. Even if it feels wrong to laugh right now.

I want to bring books about girls and women into 2017 that may not fall into the designation of “women of color” — some of the books I’ve already mentioned do not. I want to remember that we’re all in this together and no one gets out of this life as an adult unwounded. Shared pain (and shared laughter) may be the simplest unifiers. So I will read Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne, The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak, and Mothers and Other Strangers by Gina Sorell. Gina’s book has this opening line: “My father proposed to my mother at gunpoint when she was nineteen, and knowing that she was already pregnant with a dead man’s child, she accepted.”

Because I am a sister to four brothers and have always been told growing up that I was a Tomboy — but whatever! — I will call these books my masculine selections that I’m carrying into 2017: Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland, Matthew Nienow’s chapbook House of Water, and Shooting Elvis by Robert Eversz. Coincidentally, Shooting Elvis has a young female protagonist from the 1980s to whom I can relate. I still imagine myself wearing neon with crimped bangs.

And finally, I’m carrying an early review copy of The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi. It’s gorgeous. In it, Choi writes about painful loss — he’s lost a child, he’s lost his native country, and now, the people he loves are slipping away. The poems in his book have caused me to ponder the state of life, this world we now live in, and to draw enormous conclusions about us: That maybe by 40 years old, every person alive has lost something so germane that it changes her — something about her country, her personal life. But what I’ve discovered is more true is that the love we give is timeless. For everything else, we’ll have to decide how we’ll move forward with what remains.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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