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.

Fancy a Poldark pilgrimage?

If you’re a fan of Poldark, the series of historical novels by Winston Graham (published from 1945 to 1953 and continued from 1973 to 2002),  and/or the subsequent BBC telly series, you’ll enjoy this gorgeous spread of photos highlighting various real-life Cornwall locations that are featured in the books and on the screen. There’s also a book, also written by Graham that you can buy: a  lavishly illustrated companion to the novels that was reissued to coincide with the TV show. (If you’re interested in the faithfulness of the TV series to the books, or the books to the reality, you might like to read this intriguing take on the topic).

If this isn’t enough,  Visit Cornwall has a map, and some typically lush travel lingo to go with it that encourages us to “Go behind the scenes and discover the glistening blue waters, lush countryside and craggy cliffs that have sashayed from the background to become the lead Poldark star across the first three series. We think they’re even better in real-life than they are on screen!”

Hungry for more? Try The Poldark Cookery Book, wherein you’ll find a recipe for one of my very favourite dishes:  the cornish pasty ( be sure to enjoy with a pint of West Country cider!). The cookbook is “filled with the food that would have been enjoyed by Ross Poldark and Demelza in the eighteenth century, this recipe book is the perfect present for the Poldark super-fan.”

For more of what you’ll need to know before you go, drop by the Visit Cornwall website. Oh, and if you’re a book collector, there’s currently a set of all twelve first editions available online for US$8500