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August 27, 2014

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Life, letters and Las Vegas

A conversation between Douglas Unger and H. Lee Barnes

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Iris Dumuk

Douglas Unger, left, and H. Lee Barnes, plus a small scattering of the novels that have been written about Las Vegas—including, bottom right, Barnes’ own, The Lucky.

If you want to have a conversation about writing and Las Vegas, it would be hard to find a better-matched pair than Douglas Unger and H. Lee Barnes. Unger, author of the novels Leaving the Land and Voices from Silence (among others) and the acclaimed story collection Looking for War, chairs UNLV’s English department. He came to Las Vegas in 1991.

Barnes has been here for 40 years and is best known for his novel The Lucky (based on the life of Benny Binion) and story collections Gunning for Ho and Talk to Me, James Dean, among others. He teaches creative writing at the College of Southern Nevada.

Both were recently included in the anthology Literary Nevada.

The following is culled from a discussion between the two men at Unger’s office:

H. Lee Barnes: I’ll start this off with the fact that I feel I’m a wee bit underserving this process right now because I’m not as familiar with other books that have been written about Las Vegas. Doug’s far more familiar with them. I’ve read Leaving Las Vegas, which isn’t really about Las Vegas but is set here. I’ve read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That’s pretty much my knowledge of people who have written about Las Vegas in that way.

Douglas Unger: I think the two best novels that get Las Vegas authentically are H. Lee Barnes’ The Lucky. And I really think that Beautiful Children, Charles Bock’s book, does get an authentic version of Las Vegas. Even though I think he plays a lot with the seamy underside that we sort of consider to be the world’s vision of us, he does it from the inside. The inside of homeless kids on the street. And he does get the housing projects, you know, Phase IV development out in Summerlin, described very well, and the people who live in them, also described pretty well. So I’d say that’s authentic.

And I think Lee is also authentic for that period, I’d say it’s the ’60s—

HLB: ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

DU: —where there’s normal people living in town. It’s almost as though in Barnes’ novel he does everything he can possibly do not to write about the glamour, the glitter, the Strip, whatever. He writes about real people moving in and out of the scene. And where you get into the casino is in Willy Bobbins, right? [Bobbins is the Binion character in The Lucky.] God, that trial scene, too. I don’t know whether that’s real testimony or the way Binion spoke ...

HLB: Yeah, that was the way he spoke.

DU: That kind of plain-speaking justification of who he is and what gambling is and what he’s given to the town, was exactly right. And it’s very different than the way the tourist writers treat Las Vegas. And you’ve got plenty of tourist writers. Norman Mailer, having his apocalyptic kind of ending happen [in Las Vegas] at the end of An American Dream, as though this is where it all comes apart. Joan Didion in Play It As It Lays has scenes set here that are like that. Same thing with J.G. Ballard’s Hello America, the big apocalypse with President Charles Manson happens in Vegas. Almost like The Stand, too, where the Antichrist sets up residence here.

That vision of the town, to me, I’m tired of reading about it. I almost want to throw it—when I get to that in a book I just want to throw it against the wall and say, I don’t need to read anymore. So I like that Lee has an authentic vision of what the town is.

Charles Bock is having it both ways. And there’s a way in which I think people who know the town are gonna resent him a little bit when they read the novel, for, okay, why do you have to have the homeless kids doing the whole wild sexual thing here; the kind of shiftless characters that you have here. But on the other hand there’s a sense of authenticity that he’s writing it from the inside; that what he’s writing about is real.

HLB: I can honestly say that there’s not a day that I don’t see something in Vegas, or listen to someone who’s talking in Vegas, that doesn’t spark a story, or an idea, or a line. I was coming in here, and walking down Paradise Road was this woman, obviously stoned on meth—she had all the wild actions going, and you could see that she was probably a hooker. But she was enthralled with the sun; she kept looking at the sun. All you have to do is project yourself into that moment. What is her life? Her life, if she is a hooker, isn’t just tricking with the next john. Her life is a very complex thing. And here it is, out in the open. Thirty-five years ago it wouldn’t have been out in the open. Cops would have pulled her over. We had a small-town thing. So the story has changed as the town has changed.

DU: Do you think that’s any different than in, say, New York? You could find the same methed-out hooker wandering the streets of New York. It’s everywhere.

HLB: Oh, I understand that. What I’m saying is, here it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and she’s stoned, and she’s out there, and she has this look like she’s lost; she’s looking toward the Strip, and there’s the glare of that afternoon sun.

Now, I don’t know where I’d go with that, where I’d project it. You see things like that, an image that sparks—it’s everywhere here.

DU: Maybe the sense is that we just don’t hide it. It’s on display.

HLB: You go elsewhere, and these things exist. But here it’s almost magnified, because everything else here is so large. So when you see those small moments of human behavior that seem uninhibited, it strikes a different chord in you.

DU: I think so. But I’m far more interested in the subject that you get in your story “At Random”: She’s a roulette dealer who’s completely trapped in the time capsule of the casino, she doesn’t know whether it’s day or night, and stuck in her workaday world until the moment you end the story with her going out into the street and into the light. That’s the story I’m more interested in, because she’s not drunk and wandering down the street, she’s working that job that is characteristic of our town, and she’s got a real job and real motives and a real desire for freedom. That’s what I’m interested in.

I’m always interested in guys who work construction, and I know a lot of them. They’ve failed elsewhere, and they’re here for a better life. I’m very interested in that and the idea that Las Vegas is a place for second chances.

HLB: Much more than Reno, despite the fact that it’s the same state.

These stories depend on how things work out, the vicissitudes of this town. And probably in the next year or so I’ll be writing stories about what happens to people in this kind of economy.

DU: I found this article by Ken Cooper, “Zero Pays the House”; it’s about the Las Vegas novel and atomic roulette. It’s 16 years old. It’s a really brilliant piece; it’s looking at the idea that the rest of the country has to create a place like Las Vegas, or Disneyland, as a place that’s unreal, to be able to put ideas here that are complete fantasies in order to reinforce their own sense of reality—which is no more real than where we are.

In other words, that whole fantastic image that’s been bought into by the writers I look at, like Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Michael Ondaatje, Hunter S. Thompson, even recently Christina Garcia in Handbook to Luck or Joe McGinniss’ first novel, The Deliveryman, which I think is just full of cliches about our town. I think reinforcing that cliche is somehow necessary for the rest of the country to have a place to dump its fantasies, dump its crazy ideas. And the way we look at it from here is, I don’t feel it’s that place at all.

That story you were describing earlier, about a construction worker having to pull up stakes and leave, is no different than what’s happening in Ohio or Florida or Michigan.

HLB: What I’m saying is the flip side of that. These are people who migrated here based on what the community was going to be, the prosperity and everything. When that leaves, they have to abandon. The story here is the same one of hope and despair. It’s the existential argument—the existence between hope and despair. How do you shed that? Those people in Ohio, they’re trapped in their situation, but they’ve held on for two or three generations despite the fact they’re in decline.

DU: Yes, there’s the sense that they’ll stay there.

HLB: And people will run from here.

DU: Yeah. That’s true. And I don’t know what to make of that. But there’s certainly a story in that abandonment and that transitory idea.

DU: What do you feel has been the change in terms of literary consciousness in Las Vegas? I’ve got an idea of what it was like when I got here in 1991. I’m not nearly as much of a native as you are. But being here almost a generation, I see a huge sea change in terms of consciousness, writers who are coming here, readers—a kind of core of literary people here who appreciate good writing. You’re getting this literary culture established that’s different.

HLB: When I started writing, I wrote in a vacuum. There was a woman who came here, Nancy Ashbaugh, who published Turn Left or Die and a couple of novels. She was about the only person who could give you any insight into writing who was a working writer. So the whole notion of craft I learned just by reading voraciously, and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. But I wrote in a vacuum. As far as other writers, I met a handful of others when I took that workshop with Nancy Ashbaugh, and, honestly, none of them were really—they wanted to write the popular novel and get rich. So the motivation to really write about Nevada, or Las Vegas, to put the microscope on this town, wasn’t really there.

DU: If you think about how in 20 years—if you look at Richard Wiley coming to UNLV in ’89, me coming here in ’91, and now it’s 2008—we’ve gone from a place where tourists would visit and kind of write their passing impressions, a place to adventure around in, trash and then leave, you’ve now got resident writers [at UNLV] and a resident core of artists that’s recognized by the outside world as being here. Eventually, you’re going to get a movement.

HLB: Right now I’m not writing about Vegas, but I’m doing the prequel to The Lucky; I’ve been working on it on and off for eight years. The history of Willy Bobbins, what brought him here, trying to capture that maverick spirit—how would someone who’s completely illiterate manage to steer his life the way he did.

It’s tough, because you can tap into this so much, and at a certain stage you go, I don’t want to write about Las Vegas anymore. I don’t want to write about Vietnam anymore, either. I just finished seven and a half months, intensive, writing a memoir of Vietnam. I’d resisted it for a long time. There’s really a couple of interesting moments in there, some very interesting characters. So that was tough, and I don’t want to write about Vietnam anymore. And I’m not sure how much I want to write about Las Vegas anymore. There’s other things I want to write, and the clock is constantly ticking. I teach five classes, and it’s a load. I look at the books here, and I think I haven’t had time to read these books and do the writing, and you really want to.

DU: Well, see, I don’t have any other life. I just work all the time.

HLB: What I’m working on right now is a series of essays, in the form of a memoir and observations; they’re creative nonfiction, I guess you’d call it. Some have to do with the college I work at. Some have to do with casinos, but in a different way. I think it’s because you’ve got these notions in the back of your head that you’ve gone through these experiences, and they take on some kind of meaning that you really can’t translate into fiction, because fiction is driven by the characters you create. And so this gives me a little more latitude.

And true confessions: I’ve actually written a book of poems. [Laughs.] I don’t know what the hell I’m gonna do with it.

DU:I’m just now feeling I’ve got enough objectivity to write about Las Vegas. And it took a long time—I’m on about a 10-year time lag anyway. So the Las Vegas I’m writing about is right about the turn of the millennium, the way the town was then, and the kind of hope that was there and the sense of building that was there. Sort of the pre-Miami phase. There was a moment there, between maybe ’98 and 2001, when it seemed about exactly right, in terms of growth and the way people moved around town. There was a kind of freshness about the place. Now I don’t know what’s going on.

DU: I’ve been able to watch certain writers come in and out of town, all the way from the extreme reaction of people like Olga Broumas, the poet, who stood in front of an audience here, who actually put her hands up and said, Ooh, Las Vegas; to Russell Banks, who just loves to come here and just inhabit the place—he loves to be here, because the variety of people he can encounter in a day is so interesting; to Joyce Carol Oates, who, I was trying to find something that would really fascinate her about Las Vegas. She loved the Liberace Museum; she thought that was a fascinating idea. But what really got her were the fountains in front of Bellagio. She was fascinated by it. Just thought it was wonderful and poetic. Joseph Brodsky was a great visitor here; the Nobel laureate in poetry. He had a colleague and I, and our wives, do shifts with him, for 24 straight hours, until he had played every single game in Vegas until he understood it.

I love to watch the way writers respond. There’s a question we always ask [when UNLV brings in visiting writers]: Do you want to stay at a casino hotel, or do you want to stay off the Strip? And I always know—some writers say, Give me the whole deal, I want to be here, I want to be at the center of it all. And someone like an academic critic, Peter Brooks, of course, off the Strip. They have this idea that it’s too culturally depraved.

HLB: If you get cultural cooties, you cannot survive! [Laughs]

DU: Absolutely. I vastly prefer those who want to dive right in and find out.

HLB: Isn’t it amazing how some writers who have very liberal views in their writing and so forth have very conservative ways about them when they’re actually exposed to real life?

DU: Or they’re so fussy.

HLB: And this is a place that will challenge them, unquestionably.

HLB: I think perhaps Las Vegas is better suited to the short story [with its emphasis on character]; generally a novel reduces it to a setting. It’s in the background somewhere.

DU: I’d love to have the freedom to write a bunch of stories about Las Vegas.

HLB: We’re not collecting royalty checks and writing [laughs]; what we’re doing is writing in our spare time—

DU: Well, I am collecting royalty checks; it’s just not enough to live on. [More laughter] But we’re very fortunate to be able to teach writing and be here.

HLB: Yeah, that’s right.

LVW: Do you think there are enough writers that you can have the sort of shop talk you need?

HLB: [esturing at Unger]: Well, he may have them here, but not where I am. Not where I am. That’s why I jumped on the opportunity to come here; it gives me a chance to do it.

DU: We’ve got a good core. Culture gets built out of a critical mass of artists who do exactly that: talk, relate to one another, have lives together and form conspiracies and bonds. So you’ll pick up a book 20 years from now, and friends will be blurbing friends’ books, pushing friends’ books to agents and publishers, writing about a mutual set of aesthetic concerns, if not a place; and that’s happening here, with students keeping in touch with one another; with the Black Mountain Institute bringing people in, with the MFA program. Plus, then, the writers who are coming in—Joyce Carol Oates drew everybody in and started conversations around ideas.

And so you get this critical mass, and out of that you get an artistic movement, and I’m really optimistic that whatever the young people are going to do will be unexpected, something we haven’t thought of, and it will be wonderful.

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