All 14 short stories in this collection by P Moss take place in modern day Las Vegas, but most of them also have links to old Vegas through the characters and their memories. By “old Vegas,” I’m referring to pre-corporate Vegas—Vegas before the Feds squeezed the mobsters out on behalf of the multinational corporations.
A lot of us who remember old Vegas have fond memories of what this town once was, and it wasn’t all that long ago. A thousand articles have been written in the past thirty years describing the Disneyfication of Vegas and all the attractions added to widen the consumer base—the pirate ship and the volcano and the roller coasters and white tigers—but not much ink has been spent describing what was subtracted.
I remember my first trip here in the late 70s, being picked up at the airport by a buddy who tossed me a cold bottle of beer as soon as I got into his car. I said something like, “Don’t get yourself busted for drinking and driving.” He took a drink from his already open bottle as we exited the airport and said, “This is Vegas, Arnold. There’s no open container law here. You can drink and drive and you can drink on the street.” My first thought was, wow, this town is loose. And though I wasn’t much of a drinker, and probably never would drink a beer while driving, I liked being in a place that allowed this. It was nice to be in a town where it was understood that people want to let loose and party, and I liked the feeling that I could let loose too, without having to worry every minute about The Man.
Prostitution is illegal in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, but you wouldn’t have known it back in the 80s. The Strip was always crowded with streetwalkers, who were openly soliciting day and night. A lot of big cities have red light districts where the cops confine streetwalkers—always a rundown and sometimes remote area of town where the soliciting won’t bother regular citizens, and where the cops do regular harassment “sweeps.” The feeling you get in these typical red light districts is that the women who turn to this work must have been driven by some combination of poverty, alcohol, drugs, and desperation. When I lived in Detroit, it used to be downtown on Brush Street and John R. In San Francisco, it was (and still is) the Tenderloin.
But in Vegas, it was right in the middle of tourist central, the infamous Las Vegas Strip. Not only that, but the streetwalkers in Vegas—unlike those I’d seen in other cities—were really good-looking young women. A guy couldn’t walk a block on the Strip without being solicited at least half a dozen times by girls in hot pants who looked like models. There were hundreds of them, maybe thousands, and these were not desperate women. These were hopeful Hollywood starlets flying in from L.A., and college girls picking up some easy money in a party town where the cops looked the other way. From the caliber of the talent, it was clear the field was highly competitive, so I suspect the money was substantial. It astonished me how many young women would do this when selling sex was basically a job choice.
How did I get off on this tangent? Moss never mentions drunk drivers in his stories and only rarely mentions prostitutes, and this is allegedly a review of his book, Blue Vegas. Plus, it now sounds like I’m off on some wild rant proposing that Vegas should do something to increase the hooker and drunk driver populations. (I will note, however, that our beloved ex-mayor, Oscar Goodman, wanted a legal red light district in downtown Las Vegas, but his hands were tied by state law that permits prostitution only in counties with total populations below 400,000.)
Look: I’m not trying to say that I wish the Strip was still crawling with ladies of the night or that I have a need to pop a cold one while I’m driving around town. It just saddens me that the old feeling of freedom is gone. And it saddens me even more that the small-time freelance hustlers—both in and out of the casinos—who knew how to satisfy deep and eternal human needs, have been replaced by more of the same old corporate hustle that requires your needs to be sublimated into some form of endless shopping that redirects your life essence into a steady stream of income for the elite.
But you’ll find those small-time freelance hustlers in Moss’s book, living in the shadows and cracks of the new Vegas. Most of the stories in Blue Vegas are slice-of-life tales, strongly character-driven—and by such characters! And Moss has that story writer’s gift of coming up with great situations for his characters that immediately suck you in.
In “The Curse of Frank Sinatra,” a couple of low-rent scammers find an old homemade film strip that appears to be a snuff film, and they try to blackmail the retired Vegas showroom star who’s in it. In “Snatched,” a guy who’s walking on air after an incredible night of sex with a showgirl discovers she was only with him to frame him for a murder.
In “The 8:16 to Nowheresville,” a woman whose life was ruined when the man she was in love with jilted her (suddenly and with no explanation) meets him twenty years later and finds he’s a homeless bum. In “Clam Daddy,” a one-time successful casino exec (put out of work by the recession) goes to a strip club where his daughter works as a nude dancer. It breaks his heart to see his little girl selling lap dances to strangers, but he also sees that she seems to like the work and she’s good at it. It’s a bittersweet tale because of the reason he’s gone to see her and the honest affection both father and daughter feel for each other.
In “Pastrami on Rye,” we meet a one-time successful bookie who got put out of business by the modern casino sports books. I love this character. Moss writes dialogue with attitude. Recently fired from his dead-end minimum-wage job for sexual harassment, the ex-bookie is asked by an employment counselor what happened:
“Some pinch-faced old crone couldn’t take a compliment and Skippy with the pimples told me to turn in my apron. End of story.”
“No. You don’t see.”
She looked at the blank spaces on the employment history portion of his application. “Where’d you work before that?”
“I was in business.”
“What kind of business?”
“What specific qualifications are required to wipe ketchup off tables?”
Then there’s a story of a kid whose father is a compulsive gambler (“Me and My Dad”). “Plastic Jesus” is about two old-timers (she was once a showgirl and he was a lead dancer), now scraping by in a rundown apartment building, trying to help a young alcoholic ne’er-do-well. I love the titles of Moss’s stories. A couple others are: “Machine Gun Joey” and “The American Dream.”
So many of the characters in these stories have both a connection and an attachment to old Vegas that it’s obvious the author has a similar attachment. We see this in a story titled “Career Moves,” in which a journalist is trying to convince a pickpocket/con artist she discovers in the Fashion Show Mall to sell his story for a film script she’ll write. He’s a throwback to the old days, dressed for the 1960s, wearing a watch he has to wind, smoking unfiltered cigarettes. She tells him he’s living in the past, that “the world’s not black and white anymore.”
He tells her Vegas was better in the past, but it’s still Vegas:
“… This town has an aura which can’t be imploded. A soul which will not stop inspiring no matter how many landmarks are bulldozed to make way for impotent monuments to greed. There will always be enough legend in the air to legitimize my living in that black-and-white Las Vegas.”
Moss’s writing style is crisp and minimal, no fancy writerish crap. I’d compare him to Mickey Spillane. Very few fiction writers who tackle Las Vegas get it right. Moss always gets it right.
The reason I’m reviewing Blue Vegas this week (it was published in 2010) is because Moss has a new book coming out next month; so this review is a heads-up. He’s a local writer definitely worth watching. His new one’s called Vegas Knockout: A Novel in Stories. All I know about it is that the stories revolve around a Las Vegas prize fight. Amazon is listing the publication date as January 15, 2013, but there’s a book release party for this title in Las Vegas on September 6 (8 to 11 p.m.) at Moss’s Double Down Saloon. You can pre-order the book at Amazon right now. [Note from A.S.: Vegas Knockout has been released, and I like it a lot. See my review.