WHY DO WRITERS OBSESS ABOUT THE GREAT LAS VEGAS NOVEL?
Is To Kill A Mockingbird a better book than The Great Gatsby? Is Catch-22 better than The Grapes Of Wrath? Even in a society obsessed with winning, most people (awards committees not withstanding) have figured out that you can’t debate the merits of apples and oranges to find the best banana. That one writer’s work cannot be anointed as being better than all the rest, because subjectivity demands that such comparisons are simply not possible.
So why do writers obsess so much about creating the great Las Vegas novel?
The logical answer would be that it’s a challenge. A challenge discussed often when Las Vegas writers gather formally or over drinks. A challenge documented every so often by publications like the Las Vegas Weekly, Las Vegas CityLife and the Las Vegas Sun. A challenge of conquering the ultimate blank page, not unlike efforts by those who set out to be the first to climb Mt. Everest or swim the English Channel. And since no truly great Las Vegas fiction yet exists, overcoming that challenge will make any writer’s great Las Vegas novel the great Las Vegas novel by default.
John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas and Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children are generally regarded as noteworthy Las Vegas books, but they are certainly not great Las Vegas books, if for no other reason than because with a little tweaking the stories could have been set pretty much anywhere. Slide a couple rungs down the ladder to memoirs by writers who passed through, and you will discover that just because Beth Raymer’s Lay The Favorite is about to become a major motion picture doesn’t mean the book was particularly insightful. Then completely fall into the crapper with the likes of Joe McGinniss Jr. who, in writing Delivery Man, didn’t even give the city enough thought to get the streets right.
Don’t get the impression from this that all books set in Las Vegas are lacking in quality. Far from it. There are many entertaining reads including James Ellroy’s partially-set-in-Vegas The Cold Six Thousand, where his skewed world view is as much a hallucinogenic adventure as anything in the classic Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Though I would call Hunter S. Thompson’s book less a novel and more an example of how truth is so often stranger than fiction.
So why do writers obsess so much about writing the great Las Vegas novel?
The real answer is that Las Vegas is a blank slate with little literary history, making the challenge an attainable goal. But as the last microcosm of the American Dream, Las Vegas’ first great fiction won’t be a postcard or a love letter or a memoir of somebody’s pit stop on the way to someplace better.
The first great Las Vegas novel will be written by somebody who lives it. Somebody whose daily existence picks at a scab that will eventually unlock the spiritual undercurrent that drives a city that is like no other. And that novel will be justly applauded until somebody writes a better one. And eventually somebody will write an even better one than that, sparking the inevitable debate about which of those books is the best. Momentarily forgetting that you cannot compare apples and oranges to find the best banana.