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October 21, 2014

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Jack Sheehan cruises through books by men who showed us a Las Vegas that’s long gone

Do you ever find yourself wishing that Las Vegas would slow down for just a minute and take a breath of occasionally fresh air?

This sprint of ours toward becoming a megalopolis can be exhausting. I would imagine even Paris Hilton tires of all the pestering paparazzi and Strip nightclub openings and occasionally feels like kicking off her Manolo Blahniks and text-messaging for a while.

I have my own remedy for clinging to what little remains of my sanity. When I sense that the incessant traffic and bustle are about to suck all the air out of our ZIP code, I settle in with a good book. I know that positions me worlds apart from the legions of you whiling away your leisure hours either cruising the Net or pecking on your Black Berry or watching TiVo episodes of the "The Surreal Life," season six. But more later on the books that keep me sane.

First let me say that there's no intent to bash popular culture here, for I'm as much a victim as the next person. As evidence I confess to being semi-addicted this season to "American Idol," but before you relegate me to the pop-culture junk heap, I have a good excuse honestly.

Our two children are 8 and 11, and with kids that young the boob tube viewing choices these days are extremely limited. My wife and I can either hang in there with "SpongeBob SquarePants" or reruns of "Full House" - my daughter's all-time fave - or look for something the entire family can view together without any of us going into terminal glaze-over.

It so happens that "Idol" is one of those shows where all family members, no matter their generation, can render a valid opinion about the skills of the performers or the psychological condition of the judges. (Note: My own opinion is that during the audition phase Paula Abdul was either taking the wrong prescription drugs or was on the brink of a breakdown. Thankfully, she's been more stable lately. My guess is that she's found a man.)

But let's get back to the books I prefer when I'm chilling from all the frenzied activity that surrounds us. My preferences include a blend of fiction and nonfiction, old and new. I like biographies and histories, books of essays, and classic fiction. Movie producer Robert Evans' autobiography, "The Kid Stays in the Picture," was a good read, as was Garry Giddins' bio of Bing Crosby, "A Pocketful of Dreams." (I'm partial to Crosby material because my Aunt Dorothy dated Bing as a young woman in Spokane. Don't believe me? It's all there in Giddins' book, page 101, names and all.)

My two favorite Las Vegas-themed books are easy: Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" still holds up some 36 years after it was penned by the king of Gonzo Journalism. Although the book is primarily concerned with the voluminous drug intake and psychotic behavior of Thompson and his 350-pound attorney, Oscar Zeta Acosta, the prose tells us volumes about our city in an earlier time, and reaffirms the image of our town as the perfect place to lose your mind. Thompson's book is the literary antithesis of the "what happens here, stays here" campaign.

"Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season," by John Gregory Dunne, is a compelling account of a time in the author's life when he'd reached the nadir of despair and elected to come to Las Vegas either to wait out the darkness or end it all. As he survives through the summer of his discontent, the protagonist, whom we assume is Dunne, encounters a bizarre collection of semi-fictional characters who through their oddball behaviors convince him that Vegas is a catch-all for every misfit and second-chancer on the planet.

There's Artha, the one-eyed hooker who keeps detailed notes on the preferences of her 1,203 tricks in the past five years; Jackie Kasey, a past-his-prime opening-act comedian clinging desperately to his ever-shrinking billing on hotel marquees; and Buster Mano, a patio-furniture salesman who "views life, his own especially, as a hapless patchwork of small strategies and minor betrayals."

On a side note: I received Dunne's book as a Christmas present from a dear friend in 1975 and moved here the next month, in no small part due to the author's characterization of Las Vegas as a place spilling over with rich material for an aspiring writer.

While I don't have anywhere near the tolerance for illegal substances that Hunter Thompson was somehow able to ingest, and have yet to reach the level of despondency that sent author Dunne our way, I find enough humor and truth in both their books that I try to go back to them every couple of years for a refresher course in descriptive writing and a reminder of what Las Vegas was like in an earlier time.

Both Thompson and Dunne are gone. Dunne left us at the end of 2003 and Thompson early in '05, and I can't help but wonder, as I read their books again for the umpteenth time, how they would characterize this sprawling city that now creeps to mountain rims in every direction, gobbling up water and trees and driving tortoises and sheep and squirrels into new and foreign habitats.

The 10-minute trips across town that led these writers from one bizarre adventure to the next would take them half an hour today. And the small-town atmosphere of the early 1970s that allowed their subjects to speak from the soul no longer exists.

It's hard to truly connect with a subject in 2007 when he's constantly distracted by a cell phone call or a text message that just can't wait.

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