Fear, Loathing and Literary Tourism in Las Vegas

Literary Tourist in Las Vegas

The Globe and Mail ran a piece a while back on literary travel for the stay-at-home vacationer, getting well-known authors to recommend books that evoke various parts of Canada.

All very well, but, we don’t stay at home here; we believe that if you can, experiencing place in tandem with relevant, related reading, is the way to go.

To wit: when we went to ‘Sin City’ a few years ago, I checked out the bookstores, of course, but I also read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson and tracked down some of the locales mentioned in it.

Circus Circus for example.

Here’s one of the best passages in the novel:

The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich. The ground floor is full of gambling tables, like all the other casinos…but the place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent, and all manner of strange Country-Fair/Polish Carnival madness is going on up in this space. Right above the gambling tables the Forty Flying Carazito Brothers are doing a high-wire trapeze act, along with four muzzled Wolverines and the Six Nymphet sisters from San Diego…so you’re down on the main floor playing blackjack, and the stakes are getting high when suddenly you chance to look up, and there, right smack above your head is a half-naked fourteen year-old girl being chased through the air by a snarling wolverine, which is suddenly locked in a death battle with two silver-painted Polacks who come swinging down from opposite balconies and meet in mid-air on the wolverine’s neck…both Polacks seize the animal as they fall straight down towards the crap tables – they bounce off the net; they separate and spring back up towards the roof in three different directions, and just as they’re about to fall again they are grabbed out of the air by three Korean Kittens and trapezed off to one of the balconies.”

It’s a light, fast moving read, funnier than expected, and surprisingly thought-provoking – largely because as a literary tourist on the scene, you get face-to-face with these American Dream seekers that Thompson so successfully lampoons…complete with Southward angled cigarettes dangling from their mouths, glazed eyes, Depends tight around their groins, and coins flowing from their pockets into insatiable fruit-buttoned machines, flushing money down the toilet bowl.

Mind boggling really. More fucked up than anyone on drugs could ever be. Knowing the odds are stacked against them. Playing anyway.

***

One way to start off the day in Vegas is with a good breakfast at The Bellagio. Food is excellent, the options plentiful, and the Murano glass ceiling in the lobby as you head into the restaurant, is gorgeous.

There are a surprising number of decent used bookshops in Vegas, starting with Bauman Rare Books located nearby in the Palazzo’s high-end shopping mall – which makes sense given that Bauman owns the high-end of the book market – the shop is more special collections library than anything else, except here, of course, you can buy the books! As then manager Rebecca Romney explained (this goes back a few years, she’s now with Honey and Wax Booksellers in Brooklyn, and just so you know, what she has to say hasn’t dated at bit. It’s good, timeless advice), Bauman specializes in high-spot literature – typically the ‘best’ work by the best authors in the best condition. As a result you can expect big ticket prices, but you can also expect that the books will hold their value.

Listen to our conversation here:

Moving off The Strip, other shops in town worth visiting include the Amber Unicorn with its enormous cook book selection, Plaza Books (Update: It’s closed. Now online only), Greyhound’s Books (out of business), and the spacious Dead Poet Books (also out of business). All are clean, well organized affairs, and all offer interesting stock. Toward mid-afternoon I hit Academy Fine Books (doesn’t appear to be in business anymore…I’m going to start crying now). It’s located across the road from this heavenly creature

who looks down benignly on the now empty (and sketchy), aptly named Blue Angel Motel. Academy is decidedly disorganized, and as such, more of a treasure hunt than the other stores. Turned out to be my favourite. I pulled out this desirable E. McKnight Hauffer cover

for $10 (later printing, unfortunately, but still a lovely find. And yes, appears that it too is out of business. So much for the surprising number of used bookstores now. Looks like it’s time for another visit to survey the carnage).

Depending upon how bagged you are from all the browsing, you might want to check out Las Vegas Shakespeare. It hosts and produces an interesting lineup of theatrical and musical performances throughout the year (okay this is getting ridiculous. Seems like it too is closed). The studio is located across the road from the Neon Museum, (not closed)

another place worth visiting.

***

I came to literary tourism through the doors of a used bookstore. Via the hunt. And yet, book shopping represents just one of many ways in. One of the most popular, is, as I say, through the pages of a novel. In Fear and Loathing the two lead characters check into The Mint Hotel and Casino.

after booting it from L.A. to Vegas in their rented, drug-laden convertible. Hunter S. Thompson puts it much better: “Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas. To relax, as it were, in the womb of the desert sun. Just roll the roof back and screw it on, grease the face with white tanning butter and move out with the music at top volume, and at least a pint of ether.”

The Mint sadly is no longer, or at least its name has gone. The place is now known as Binion’s. It’s seen better days. Like when big crowds were still tight around the crap tables. “Who are these people? These faces! Where do they come from? They look like caricatures of used-car dealers from Dallas. But they’re real. And, sweet Jesus, there are a hell of a lot of them – still screaming around these desert-city crap tables at four-thirty on a Sunday morning. Still humping the American Dream, that vision of the Big Winner somehow emerging from the last-minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino”

So, I called them up and got a tour of the hotel part of what is now a casino complex. Turns out it, the tower, has been closed, awaiting renovation, for some four years now. Nonetheless, we traipsed up in un-airconditioned heat to the 12th and 18th floors, in search of rooms 1221 and 1850. No such luck. Neither exist. We did however visit the 5th floor and a double bedded room that more than likely served as sauce for Thompson’s meatball imagination. We also hit the rooftop patio, complete with empty swimming pool, and a great view of several other buildings that would have been around in the late 60s.

From Binion’s I hi-balled it across town to the Special Collections Library at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where you’ll find everything you ever wanted to know about gambling and the history of ‘Sin City’. “ UNLV Special Collections houses unique, rare, and specialized research material that documents the history, culture and physical environment of the city of Las Vegas, the Southern Nevada region, the gaming industry, and the University of Nevada Las Vegas.” Collections include books, pamphlets, posters, serials and periodicals, scrapbooks, archives and manuscripts, maps, architectural drawings, photographs, video and audio tapes.

I talked gambling with former director now Head of Exhibits (now Curator) Peter Michel. Listen here to our conversation:

After our conversation I pulled the files on The Mint, ‘the tallest building’ in Nevada at the time, and saw how it looked shortly after it went up, how they promoted it, and what they stirred their drinks with. I also got to play with a First Edition of Fear (see above).

How did this physical framing of the book affect my experience of it? Rather positively I’d say. Bringing it out into the real world has certainly made both events – the reading, and the visiting – more distinctly memorable. There’s a thrill attached to seeing in real life what you’ve first encountered in your imagination – even if the two don’t always match. Extending my encounter with the book was fun, a continuation, an excursion, a kind of treasure hunt, in a way, which takes us back to the start, searching for things – books in one case, deeper understanding in the other – trying to impose order on the chaos.

The day didn’t start off with a bang

Literary Tourist in New York: 

The day didn’t start off with a bang. Quite the contrary. The early morning meeting I’d set up had been cancelled. I was stranded down at 5th and 14th with several empty hours yawning in front of me. I decided to stroll up 5th Avenue towards Times Square to see what I could see.

This was a good start

After passing a sign of the times,

I hit Broadway where I re-encountered Rizzoli Bookstore at it’s newish location. It was for years on 57th Street in an elegant six story townhouse, here it continues to specialize in illustrated books on architecture, interior design, fashion, photography, cookery, and the fine and applied arts, as well as literature, and foreign language books; the store also carries European magazines and newspapers and a delightful selection of note cards and stationery.

Further along Broadway I came across this appealing combination: free books and free music

This walk along Broadway reminded me of my first visit to NYC back in the eighties with my friends Pat Grew and Ann Stoner. It was late at night. We had the street to ourselves. Starting right at the bottom of Manhattan we walked all the way up to and past The Lincoln Center. It was hot and Ann’s shoes were bothering her, so she took them off and went barefoot. You should have seen the colour of the soles of her feet by the time we got to our destination. Soot black they were. No idea how long it took to get them back to normal. Months I’m sure.

It began to rain, so I decided to hop on the subway (I’m likin’ some of the art

that decorates the walls) with my convenient three-day pass, and check out one of the places where writers must hang out in New York: the lobby of the Ace Hotel at 20W 29th Street, just off Broadway.

All the seats in the pit were Continue reading “The day didn’t start off with a bang”

A literary adventure in San Francisco


Poet Weldon Keys is best known for parking his car at the Marin end of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955 and disappearing without a trace.

Two things hit me as I walked the streets of San Francisco recently. First, the sweet, strong, distinctive (pleasant) smell of Californian weed wafting its way through the air at pretty well every street corner.* Second, the realization that a Literary Tourist can have a lot of fun in this city.

I never really enjoyed smoking pot, too much hysterical laughter over nothing, and finding ordinary ideas profound. I do however love a well bound book. Hence, the first item on my San Franciscan agenda  was an interview with Anita Engles, Executive Director of The American Bookbinders Museum, “the only museum of its kind in North America!”

Early Saturday afternoon I made my way down – and I do mean down –

on the Powell Street cable car from the much storied Fairmont Hotel where we were staying – check out the foyer

famed publisher James Laughlin stayed here after a ski trip in Washington state in December 1936, the year he founded New Directions. Apparently he made himself ill eating the “marvellous” French cuisine at the Fairmont – to Clementina Street in the heart of San Francisco’s SoMa/Yerba Buena District where the museum is located. Along the way I dropped into the Hotel Rex in the theatre district to admire some of

their author drawings

– the hotel is named after poet Kenneth Rexroth and is home to a library bar

that features literary-themed cocktails, live music and author readings; and John’s Grill,

only a few blocks away, close to Union Square. John’s was built in 1908, the first downtown restaurant to open after the city’s famed earthquake of 1906. John’s is renowned for hosting celebrities from around the world; more importantly, it’s where Sam Spade dined out in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective novel The Maltese Falcon. The same dish he ate is on the menu – Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops. Upstairs you’ll find a glass case displaying a first edition of the book, along with a statue of the black bird itself. Many have suggested that John Huston’s film, with its femme fatales and ‘shady sleuths’ marked the beginnings of film noir.

Continue reading “A literary adventure in San Francisco”

Connecting with Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde Statue (4503030408).jpg
Statue of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square, Dublin

I’ve just finished reading Richard Ellmann’s splendid biography of Oscar Wilde. Filled with telling detail about the man and his times, illuminating insights and deeply empathic passages, the work is one of the most engaging I’ve ever read. Here’s how it ends:

“His work survived as he had claimed it would. We inherit his struggle to achieve supreme fictions in art, to associate art with social change, to bring together individual and social impulse, to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitized and standardized, to replace a morality of severity by one of sympathy. He belongs to our world more than to Victoria’s. Now, beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, and so right.”

Biography, when written this well, joins reader and subject in ways that only true-life friendships can approach. I felt a real void after finishing this book, and, to bring in literary tourism, a desire to explore the various places and books referred to in it. With this in mind, Dublin would be a pretty good starting point.   Dublin is one of 28 Cities of Literature around the world. It’s filled with all sorts of literary things to do and places to visit, including  Oscar Wilde House  and The Oscar Wilde Collection at Trinity College’s Manuscripts & Archives Research Library.

Audio: Novelist Edward Rutherfurd on Paris and Literary Tourism


One of 250 Bouquinistes by the Seine in Paris

Edward Rutherfurd was born in England, in the cathedral city of Salisbury. Educated locally, and at the universities of Cambridge and Stanford, he subsequently worked in political research, book-selling and publishing. Abandoning this career in the book trade in 1983, he returned to his childhood home to write Sarum, a historical novel with a ten-thousand year story-line, set in the area around Stonehenge. It was an instant international bestseller remaining on the New York Times Bestseller List for 23 weeks. Since then he has written (at least) six more bestsellers: Russka, a novel of Russia, London, The Forest, set in England’s New Forest which lies near Sarum, and two novels which cover the story of Ireland from the time just before Saint Patrick to the twentieth century. In 2009 New York was published, and in 2013, Paris.

Rutherfurd is the quintessential Literary Tourist. He ‘walks’ the cities he writes about, researches them, imagines them, and arrives at a personal understanding of them. We talk here about this process, about the importance of learning about the ordinary lives of people from the past, of ‘active learning’ and writing short stories about the places you visit, about James Michener and the fascination of historical and cultural roots,  about history as reconnaissance, as “finding out what happened to the last army that went there”, about the campfire and stories of the hunt, the Musee Carnavalet and Le Procope restaurant. Listen here


Photo of Edward Rutherfurd looking like a Parisian