I’ll admit I’ve wanted to use that line for the title of a post for a long time. Then it occurred to me that it might be best applied to a review of the locale it is describing, and thus a new category is born. The reality of life and limited vacation days mean that my better half and I don’t get to see as much of the world as we’d like, so we treasure our infrequent voyages abroad and try to pack as much sightseeing into them as we can while setting aside sufficient downtime – no point coming back from holiday feeling more tired than when you left. Las Vegas, which we visited four years ago, is obviously not a place to lounge around (unless it’s a specific type of “lounge” we’re referring to). If New York is the city that never sleeps, Vegas is the city that can’t sleep because it’s on a perpetual crack high. In Hannibal, Agent Starling comments about a letter from Dr. Lecter postmarked Las Vegas that it must be from a remailing service, as Vegas is the last place the cultured killer would ever be. There is however a culture here; it’s the culture of affluenza in the backyard of the one percent, oozing wealth and fortune and gobs of excess at every turn.
Monty Python has a bit where Michael Palin, playing a priest, goes on at length about how “incredibly huge” God is. Your first sight of Sin City from the runway at McCarran International Airport is misleading – you can see the hotels in the distance, but your mind, accustomed to the size of hotels from your hometown, can’t comprehend the sheer scale. You think, “oh, well it won’t take that long to walk up and down the Strip.” That is, until the steroid-enhanced architecture of buildings like the MGM Grand, the Luxor, Caesar’s, the Bellagio and so on along Las Vegas Boulevard puts you in your place. This is the pinnacle of capitalist triumph, built on inconceivable mountains of debt, what the Egyptian pharaohs might have crafted with their armies of slave labor had they been fond of slot machines, gin and neon. By any measure of sustainable or even logical urban planning, Las Vegas should not exist – it makes no sense to drop a metropolis in the middle of the desert. But once it’s there, why not go full tilt – let’s have trucks spew diesel fumes up and down the Strip for twenty-four hours straight carrying ads for gentleman’s clubs, let’s install ubiquitous misters to spray what’s left of the Colorado River on sunburned heads, and let’s run enough air conditioning to sear the ozone layer to a crisp. Of course, that’s part and parcel of the Vegas allure – that with a few lucky hands at the blackjack table you too can afford your own $500-a-round golf course (or, at the least, not blink at the idea of a $6.50 glass of orange juice).
There is plenty to loathe about the idea of Las Vegas; the excess, the waste, the glorification of wealth as mankind’s most noble ambition, the destitution of the ones who have bet the house and lost. However, something about it tempts you to say “the heck with it,” set the moral issues aside and plunge yourself headfirst into the Vegas experience. You can spend a week there, never set foot near a gaming table and still see something different in every passing minute. Each hotel has its own custom Cirque de Soleil (or Cirque de Soleil-knockoff) show, and any Beatles fan wandering through won’t want to miss the Mirage’s presentation of LOVE, a collaboration setting the spectacle of Cirque to the timeless music of the Fab Four, which will never sound better than it does blasting remastered from a hundred speakers inside the theatre. If you want kitsch, the cheesiness of “classic Vegas,” well, there is still the topless girlie show at the Tropicana, the men of “Thunder from Down Under” at Excalibur, and “Sirens of T.I.” at Treasure Island, where the spectacle of a pirate ship sinking before your eyes every half hour has been enhanced with a lot of busty, scantily-dressed women. If you want something you can safely show the kids, take them to the M&M’s exhibit to say hello to a lifesize Red and Peanut, then wander across Las Vegas Boulevard to watch the dancing fountains at the Bellagio and re-enact the final scene of Ocean’s Eleven. And speaking of fountains, only in Las Vegas will you turn a corner in a casino and stumble across something like this:
Would I go back? It shames me to admit, in a heartbeat. Mainly because I feel like I still need to figure Las Vegas out. I can sneer at its over-the-top opulence in one breath and revel in its eternal party atmosphere in the next, and for me that contradiction is endlessly fascinating. There is art and joy to be found beneath the layers of gouda and heartbreak; sensory experiences to be relished, regal comforts to be absorbed. Perhaps the karmic way to do Vegas is to pledge an equivalent amount of reading Shakespeare and doing charity work for every day you decide to spend under the Nevada neon. Or, at the very least, tell yourself that the allure and seduction of Lady Vegas will not change you nor what you hold dear. For bat country may be a nice place to visit, but you probably don’t want to leave your soul there.