The Land, the People, God, and Chance
By David Thomson
Knopf 330pp $27.50
Seen from the air, Nevada seems little more than a brown patch of dirt before your plane soars over the mountains and descends into the haze of California. As a film essayist and a biographer, David Thomson has made more than his share of flights over Nevada, shuttling between the media-centric coasts. In such previous works as A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Beneath Mulholland, and Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, the British-born Thomson has shown a keen outsider's eye for observing America's subcultures through its movies. Now, in his new book, In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance, Thomson takes us on an entertaining side trip through Hollywood's ultimate back lot: the wide open spaces of the Nevada desert.
As the title suggests, however, this is much more than a local history or travel guide to Nevada's far reaches. The altogether different story of Las Vegas--with its visionary 1940s mobster, Bugsy Siegel, and later, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the rest of the Rat Pack--looms large in Thomson's book. So does the building of Hoover Dam, one of the epic Depression-era projects, whose water and electricity output made possible the rapid growth of modern Las Vegas. Thomson also deftly ties the development of the atomic bomb and its place in the state's identity to the folks who believe that, somewhere out there, UFOs and space aliens lurk.
That's a lot of ground to cover, especially when a great many other books, movies, and TV shows have already been there. But what makes Thomson's book so original, and so deeply satisfying, is the way that he pulls all his disparate subjects together in a highly personal and at times lyrical contemplation of close-of-the-century American life. Deceptively casual in tone, In Nevada is at once broad and deep, both conceptual and anecdotal. Thomson is drawn to Nevada because it "is on the edge, on the wire, off to one side, in the empty quarter.... America has used Nevada as a testing ground--and not just for weapons and their destructiveness but also for new social ideas and their explosiveness. What happens if you allow divorce, prostitution, gambling? Can there be community and purpose if you encourage things deep in human nature yet supposedly alien to order and togetherness?"
But one also gets the sense that Thomson has chosen his subject for the sheer pleasure of traveling through the vast Nevada desert. Raised in London, Thomson belongs to a long line of English writers who have come out West--some for health, others to write for the movies--only to fall in love with the desert.
He paints the desert, its solitude and shifting colors, as well as anyone ever has. "I could see so many subtle hues in this huge bag of cumulus all over Wheeler--steel--the color of Persian cats, pewter and mauve," he writes on visiting the 13,063-foot-high Wheeler Peak. Then, "there appeared a vertical shaft of light that stood against the sideways lunging of the clouds. The shaft seemed to be running with liquid honey or gold.... Some kind of marvel was transpiring, even if it involved nothing more or less than light and weather on that uncommon day."
To experience such epiphanies, Thomson crisscrossed the state many times by car--no easy feat, since it's nearly the size of New York and all the New England states combined. Along the way he stopped to talk to everyone from the valet-parking guys at Steve Wynn's Mirage casino to Joe Travis, the owner of the Little A'Le'Inn, a bar and motel that caters to UFO gazers in Rachel, a tiny hamlet 500 miles to the north of Vegas.
Thomson, thankfully, neither agrees with nor judges the people who think that they've seen UFOs. But these gazers are important to Thomson because they fit into a pattern of Nevada life that began with the miners, Nevada's first gamblers. Out where the wind howls and the sands blow, anything seems possible. In Nevada, there are as many strange stories as ghost towns. To make sense of it all, Thomson didn't just hit the road. He hit the books, too--reading deeply on the history of mining, railroads, and the state laws that made divorce and gambling legal. We learn that, as mining tapered off but before the casinos arrived, Reno depended on the divorce industry, which catered to rich women from San Francisco.
In Nevada requires us to be willing to go wherever Thomson feels like taking us. His chapter on Reno begins with a long reference to the movie, The X-Files, but quickly shifts to "a more mundane fantasy," that Nevada's gambling industry was born in Las Vegas. But that honor, Thomson tells us, goes to Reno. And a passage on the natural wonders of Lake Tahoe concludes with a reconstruction of a scene from The Godfather Part II, in which a gangster is offed and dumped into the crystal-clear water.
There's a point behind such noir references. For Thomson, Nevada and life are filled with both beauty and danger. By alternating chapters on the development of atomic weapons with others on the emergence of modern Las Vegas' $19 billion gambling industry, Thomson draws an obvious yet powerful link. The bomb continues to be America's ultimate roll of the dice--and we still don't know how that bet will go. It's an ominous conclusion to an otherwise invigorating read.