Saturday, November 16, 2019

Guest Blogger: Jo Perry--In Las Vegas Everything Happens

Photo by Patsy Dunne Access One Photography


Jo Perry writes a dark, comic mystery series I simply adore. It’s about a dead guy named Charles and a just as dead dog he calls Rose solving mysteries together. Yeah, I know, that’s not your normal dynamic duo, but believe me when I say Jo’s work transports you to a mesmerizingly different and addictive plane of thought. That’s why I was so excited when she agreed at Bouchercon to write a post about an astral plane of a different sort, one wildly active, in plain sight, and available to us all: Las Vegas.  It’s a unique perspective offered by a unique writer.  As for Jo’s references to another writer named Perry, Tom to be precise, yes that’s mystery writer Thomas Perry, better known in some quarters as Mr. Jo Perry.

Jo earned a Ph.D. in English, taught college literature and writing, produced and wrote episodic television, and has published articles, book reviews, and poetry, along with her Dead is Better, Dead is Best, Dead is Good, and Dead is Beautiful series.  Her latest work, a novella titled Everything Happens, has been described by our very own Tim Hallinan as “Classic American noir with a contemporary outlook” and a book that he “loved.”

Paired in a tete beche edition with “Death Of A Sinner” by Derek Farrell.
Welcome, Jo.

"Red Rock Canyon" by ChrisMRichards is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The sedimentary landscape around Las Vegas exposes deep time via strata of speckled gray and rust. The gray juttings poke up from the floor of a six hundred or so million year old sea; the toast-colored and smoldering red sandstone cliffs constructed themselves grain by grain of sand loosened from dunes almost two hundred million years old. 
Viewed from inside cooled cars or through airplane windows, the arid surface compels us to contemplate the massive and indifferent inhuman forces unmaking and making the world that we pretend is ours.

I recently wrote a novella that takes place in Las Vegas and realized that to write about or to experience a place is to occupy layers of time, space and meaning all at once.  When Thomas Perry’s great creation, Jane Whitefield––a contemporary Seneca woman who guides people from danger and into new lives and new identities––jogs through her western New York neighborhood, she simultaneously travels through a present where she warily watches for enemies––and at the same time she passes through the world of her Seneca ancestors who named, inhabited and made the fictional town Perry called Deganawida sacred.

Every place has an additional layer that exists outside time and space like an aura––its idea. The idea of Los Angeles is that it’s possible to actualize your dream, to make it big, and live illuminated always by cosmic sunshine. This is an idea that I write about in my mystery series and which often causes disappointment, harm and even death to those who believe in it and whose credulity or bad luck can be cruelly exploited because they do.  

The idea of Las Vegas––that we can exchange the quotidian, right-and-wrong, yes-and-no constrained, human-scaled world for a wide open, lawless, blurry primal zone––asserts itself before we reach the Mojave Desert or arrive at McCarren Airport. The chalky Parthenon fakes and “Best GYROS In The USA” sign at the Mad Greek Café, the Area 51 alien tableaux at the Alien Fresh Jerky gift shop, and The World’s Largest Thermometer (broken) in Baker, California––the last gas, pee and lunch stop for LA-to-Vegas drivers until they cross the Nevada state line––and the deep purpling distances make us feel weird and small and anonymous and free. 

"File:Baker-CA-thermometer Raffi-Kojian IMG 6303.JPG" by RaffiKojian is licensed under CC BY 3.0
These feelings prepare us for the liberating anonymity and mega-weirdness, mega-everything of Las Vegas, home of the Stratosphere, “the tallest building… in Nevada and the tallest free-standing observation tower in the United States.” Are there observation towers that aren’t free-standing? Do we care? Only excess matters. 

Place is scale, geology, infrastructure, architecture and statistics––as of November 1st, there have been 71 murders in Las Vegas.  Place is an accretion of histories. In Las Vegas it’s Pueblo and Paiutes, the Spanish trader who named the once-green and fertile place “The Meadows.” It’s commerce––gambling, organized and disorganized crime, and show business. It’s catastrophes––the MGM fire and the Mandalay Bay mass shooting. It’s beauty, ugliness and mythology––Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, Howard Hughes, the Rat Pack and the loyal patron who died of a heart attack right outside Heart Attack Grill.  Place is also psychology, truth and lies, i.e. “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” 
"Heart Attack Grill, Fremont Street Experience, Las Vegas" by holidaypointau is licensed under CC BY 2.0
What happens in Las Vegas ––the idea place––not the “real” Las Vegas of schools, libraries, dentists, The Vegas Valley Book Festival, sanitation departments, PTAs, etc.––is an id-driven, lizard-brained, all you can consume––The Heart Attack Grill invites you to “Gain all the weight you want,” offers an 8,000 calorie burger with “Endless Flatliner Fries” cooked in lard and serves anyone over 350 pounds for free––quadruple X, vice- and impulse-gratification, all the Wagyu beef or $2.99 steak and egg breakfasts you can devour, all the pricey handcrafted cocktails or three-foot tall bargain margarita slushies you can chug, all the spare change or big bucks you can wager, all the souvenirs, outlet mall shit or cashmere and Coach you can carry, all the guns you can shoot, and all the people you can fuck buffet. 

Prostitution is legal in most Nevada counties, but not in Clark County where Las Vegas is located. Brothels like The Chicken Ranch––which, Wikipedia notes,  “…[a]pproximately 60 courtesans call ‘home,’”––are a short drive away. 

Feel like destroying something?  For a fee, a Humvee will haul you to “Battlefield Vegas” where you will “crush a car with a tank,” or fire automatic weapons at The Gun Store.
"Jenny and Kevin take a gondola" by Kevin Hutchinson is licensed under CC BY 2.0"M4A1" by big-ashb is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Eiffel tower "Las Vegas 2015" by usareisetipps is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0"Luxor Las Vegas" by Andrew Milligan sumo is licensed under CC BY 2.0
A scorching one hundred-and-eleven-degree stroll and bingo––you’re half-awestruck below the half-sized Eiffel Tower, or the second tallest Statue of Liberty, or the one-third tall New York skyline and Brooklyn Bridge, or you’re contemplating mortality at King Tut’s replica tomb inside the 36-story Luxor pyramid with a Sphinx twice as big as the original out front, having the royal treatment at the Royal Treatment Spa in the Excalibur “castle,” or riding a gondola along a chlorinated “Venice” canal that meanders through an underground shopping mall under a cloud-dappled, perpetual sunset as your gondolier sings and people eat gelato in “St. Mark’s Square.” Or maybe you’re downtown in the Golden Nugget, stepping through the smoky coffee shop and around a corner where you behold the world’s biggest chunk of gold––named "Hand of Faith”–– “weighing almost 62 pounds”and “the size of a baby.” 

That’s a Vegas baby, baby.

"Hand of Faith" by lancehenry is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Not totally amused or fully sated? Play the slots below live circus acts, breathe perfumed hotel lobby air, see Renoirs and Picassos, watch chocolate churning, visit secret gardens, white tigers, dolphins, wave pools, dancing fountains, pirate shows, shark tanks, a Soviet-themed frozen ice bar, or take selfies with wax effigies.

Johnny depp wax "Vegas Feb 2008" by mr.throk is licensed under CC BY 2.0"Scooby Doo Man" by Omar Le Fou is licensed under CC BY 2.0
The Las Vegas idea is to do anything you want whenever you want. Anything except feeding the pigeons or feeding the homeless––an infraction punishable by a $1ooo fine. Oh and don’t sit or “rest” on a Las Vegas sidewalk. That’s illegal, too. Just ask any of 14,000 low rollers, especially those living in drainage tunnels beneath the Strip they cannot see and that glows so brightly that, according to NASA, it is the brightest spot on earth.
"Las Vegas Areal" by MCW Student Wellness is licensed under CC BY 2.0
In the seventies architect Robert Venturi visited Las Vegas with his wife and a student and wrote Learning From Las Vegas, a book challenging and repudiating postmodernism’s  emotional remoteness, minimalist and elitist aesthetic. 

The book explains how casino interior design stops time, eliminates day and night and creates an impersonal, humming, womb-like perpetual twilight; and how ornamentation communicates, invites, provokes.  What Venturi learned from Las Vegas is that, no matter how sleek and efficient “less” might be,   “Less is a bore."

"Monte Carlo Casino Gaming Floor, Las Vegas" by holidaypointau is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Las Vegas is designed to entice, built to facilitate what happens in Vegas, which is everything––impulse consumption, risk-taking as entertainment and instant access to everything, especially divorces and weddings like the $99 Valentine’s Day Pancake Wedding Special at Denny’s which included ceremony,  “silk presentat0on bouquet, boutonnière, champagne toast, and certificate.  For an additional fee couples received “Pancake Puppies,” cake pops with a pancake filling. 
"Wedding Information sign from the Neon Museum in Vegas" by Lachlan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

My parents honeymooned Las Vegas in April, 1950. After this photo was taken, a terrible sunburn confined my mother to their hotel room for the duration, and my father got word that he’d been hired to be a joke writer in Hollywood. Their life-altering trip was little more than a year before I was born, just short of a year before the Nevada Test Site––about as close to Las Vegas as the Chicken Ranch–––began decades of atmospheric and underground nuclear bomb tests. The end-of-the-world blinding flashes and hellish mushroom clouds drew bomb tourists to Vegas and radiation invisibly contaminated people, aquifers and the toxic clouds that didn’t stay in Vegas drifted all the way to Los Angeles. The test site is still one of the most radioactive places on earth and my beloved parents’ marriage remains radioactive even after their deaths––I still feel the seething afterglow.

""XX-34 BADGER" atmospheric nuclear test - April 1953" by The Official CTBTO Photostream is licensed under CC BY 2.0
When I wrote Everything Happens, a novella about a young woman heading to Las Vegas for the fast divorce she hopes will fix everything, and about her soon-to-be-ex husband in Vegas to celebrate scoring some serious cash and new a girlfriend, I realized that the promises we make, the lies we tell, and our sincerest efforts to be the best person we can be can sometimes become crushing burdens we find it necessary to briefly dump. The sensory and impulse overload and obvious vulgarities that happen in Vegas free us––temporarily––from boredom, limitation, aspiration, shame, and guilt.
What happens in Vegas is the fantasy-idea that failure can be nullified, that feeding desire will kill it, that losing enough will make us win, and that giving in to restlessness will bring us peace.
Mirages are what happen in Las Vegas––beautiful sky-reflecting silvery pools that vanish when we get close to them as we travel the long, overheated roads and make our escapes.

Calling a tow truck when our car broke down on the way to Las Vegas.  Photo by Thomas Perry
—Jo in for Jeff


  1. What gorgeous prose, Jo, to capture perfectly a place I can only be dragged to for business reasons. But I have always advised visitors from abroad that they should go there for the simple reason that one cannot know the breath of this country without Vegas in the picture. I love this piece!

    1. Thank you so much. You're right that Las Vegas is uniquely American. --Jo

  2. Thanks, Jo, I knew our readers would love your piece--no matter their views of Vegas. :) Thanks!

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