- - Thursday, April 11, 2013

BRIGHT LIGHT CITY: LAS VEGAS IN POPULAR CULTURE
By Larry Gragg
University Press of Kansas, $34.95, 368 pages, illustrated

At the turn of the 20th century, it was a frontier town, surrounded by desert, in the middle of nowhere. In the early 1930s, it was a place where construction workers building Boulder Dam came to have a good time. Since then it has evolved from a nostalgia-drenched “last frontier town,” celebrating its Wild West origins (and quickie divorces) in the 1950s, to a playground of organized crime in the 1960s, and then to a resort for family entertainment in the 1990s. Now, according to Larry Gragg, who teaches at Missouri University of Science and Technology, Las Vegas is a “place that by the early 21st century was luring nearly 40 million tourists annually.”

“Luring” is exactly the word: lavish entertainment, luxurious accommodations, an unending supply of show girls, prostitutes, strippers and exotic (and often topless) dancers and a reputation as a good place for getting away from it all, have lured millions to Las Vegas for one purpose: losing their money by gambling. That conclusion, of course, is not exactly breaking news, but Mr. Gragg has hit upon a clever way of looking at this distinctly American phenomenon.

Instead of writing about Las Vegas itself, he tells us how it has been perceived by popular culture. He writes: “I examined 150 films, over 200 television programs, over 200 novels, nearly 1,500 newspaper articles, and over 200 magazine articles in addition to a large number of relevant secondary works seeking to discover the patterns of images of Las Vegas Americans encountered between 1905 and 2005.” For the past two decades, he has visited the city annually.

There’s a lot to like here. Mr. Gragg’s scholarship is admirable, not to mention indefatigable, his writing is free of jargon, and his authorial voice is properly objective. Chapter Three, “Bugsy Siegel and the Founding of Las Vegas,” is a textbook example of good scholarship in the service of sound judgment. The author deconstructs the popular legend of the brutal but charming gangster as the “father” of Las Vegas, and presents a more balanced view, placing Siegel as only one among a group of gangsters and others who saw that the town had commercial possibilities.

After Mr. Gragg’s sifting of the evidence, it is certain that Siegel, the hard-headed visionary, the mystical entrepreneur, the tragic hero of Warren Beatty’s movie “Bugsy,” is the creation of books and movies based on myths, not facts. The author is at his best challenging the popular misconceptions pro and con about the city.

But the book has problems. In the first chapter, the author quotes Tom Wolfe’s description of the Las Vegas experience as “a unique bombardment of the senses.” I fear that many readers will find, as I did, that the superabundant research soon becomes a bombardment of the brain cells, disorienting instead of informative, covering too many aspects of his subject to be grasped at one time.

From the mob’s skimming of casino profits to Billy Graham’s visit to the city, from the 1960 movie”Pepe” (hitherto unknown to me), to a history of fine dining in Las Vegas, from gambling ships off the coast of California to the therapeutic and compulsive aspects of gambling, from the Las Vegas triumphs of Frank Sinatra, Liberace and Celine Dion to the flops of Mario Lanza, Orson Welles and a young Elvis Presley, the facts and stories pile up, ultimately leaving the reader confused as to what is important and what is not.

Too often, subjects that have been addressed in one place pop up in another, telling us what we already know (e.g., after the chapter on Siegel, the next chapter summarizes his story in another context). In Chapter Six, there is a minibiography of Frank Sinatra that adds nothing to the main subject.

Is Las Vegas what Jane Fonda once called it, “a place built on greed representing the absolute worst in our culture,” or is it a misunderstood town that provides “the world-weary tourist with the best escapist fun”? Mr. Gragg writes:

“[R]emarkably different takes on Las Vegas may best be understood as a reflection of the observer [i]n part that may well explain my effort in this book. Perhaps the traits that I have uncovered were the ones I was conditioned to see, given my many pleasant research trips to Las Vegas and my familiarity with its history.”

While the fact that we all see things differently is undeniable, Mr. Gragg’s view doesn’t sum up the book; it lets the reader down. A book with as many good points as this one deserves a stronger conclusion.

William F. Gavin is the author of “Speechwright: An Insider’s Take on Political Rhetoric” (Michigan State University Press, 2011).