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Monday, December 28, 2015

The Secret History of Las Vegas

Even before I've moved here I've always tried to read everything I can about Las Vegas. I still haven't read the quintessential novel about this strange city (I would say Tim Powers' The Last Call comes closest). The latest is The Secret History of Las Vegas, by Chris Abani, which is more about South Africa than Vegas.

The book is set in Las Vegas and the surrounding desert. A cop, Salazar, finds a bizarre scene at Lake Mead: conjoined twins, bathing in the lake, with a barrel of blood nearby. Salazar remains vexed by several bodies that were dumped at the same site a few years ago, so he suspects the twins. One of them is normal-sized, the other is not much more than infant-sized, attached to the large-oned's chest. They are called Fire and Water. workers in a carnival.

Salazar gets the help of a pyschiatrist, Sunil Singh. He used to live in South Africa, and there are flashbacks to apartheid days that weren't very interesting to me, as I thought I was going to read about Las Vegas. Singh has a killer after him, another South African who believes Singh is responsible for the death of a woman they both loved. Oh, and in a Vegas cliche, Singh is in love with a prostitute, a bi-racial woman called Asia.

Abani kind of fumbles around in the book, looking for a theme, and I don't think he ever finds it. He has some interesting things to say about Las Vegas: "He wondered what some future generation or even an alien culture of anthropologists and archaeologists would make of the current city of Las Vegas if it became lost under the desert long enough. Would it be read as the perfect Earth culture, it's acme? With representatives from all over the world building what could only be described as embassies? Each casino no longer the bizarre facade it was but rather coming together as the true United Nations? Or would it be seen as the home of world religion, each casino a representation of one group or the other? The temples were already here--pyramids, sphinxes, lions, Roman ruins, stautes of liberty, all sainted icons, and the famous searchlight on the Luxor some beacon to an indifferent god?" But I don't think Abani captures the weirdness of Vegas and it could have been set in any city. The forays into the desert are more interesting.

I mentioned the character of a prostitute, and it seems like all books about Vegas have a stripper or a hooker in them. While this is a tired cliche, and Asia is not a particularly interesting character, I did like this passage about the world's oldest profession: "We are many things--shapeshifters, actresses, mothers, sisters, virgins, whores, homemakers, and home wreckers--but more than anything, prostitutes are mirrors. We reflect only what the john wants, what he has paid to see, to experience."

Abani is a good writer when he expounds upon things, but the plot of this tale and the spine of the book are fuzzy and needed focusing. My search for the perfect Vegas book goes on.

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