The Last Honest Place in America

by Marc Cooper, reading at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne, Thursday May 6, 7:30 pm

A frenetic collage of first-hand, guerilla research into the metamorphosis of America's "symbolic capital," Marc Cooper's latest effort glows with all the literary moxie of the New Journalism. This style often results in a polycentered breadth of attractive subjects that, like a speeding joyride down Las Vegas Boulevard, is sometimes stimulating, sometimes irrelevant. Clearly supported arguments or conclusions go missing, but at the very least Cooper counterbalances irreverent spectacle with some solid research, allowing us to slow down for a closer look at that transgendered lap-dancer.

But not too close. The Last Honest Place in America offers a somewhat shallow foray into all things Vegas, making for a fascinating introduction to some sociologically relevant phenomena. Cooper's account begins with a story about the demolition of the Desert Inn building barely 6 weeks after the 9/11 attacks, a symbolic destruction ushering in a new era of highly corporatized ownership in Vegas. Combining personal anecdotes with a kaleidoscopic array of local perspectives, Cooper manages to reassess and re-articulate America's mythological fascination with Las Vegas. He sees in Vegas a brutally honest and amplified reflection of the American experience: capitalism stripped to its naked machinery and covered with a backdrop of demographically exacting, Disneyfied escapism. Cooper's voice is strong and colorful throughout as he leads us into encounters with the founder of the Las Vegas Dancers Alliance, the National Abstinence Clearinghouse Conference (a mobile activist community of virgins and "born-again virgins"), "Big O" (the city's mayor), casino owners, card dealers, gambling addicts, and more. In the face of an overabundance of facts and information about Vegas, Cooper is mindful of connecting his specialized knowledge to accessible concepts, managing to avoid isolating Sin City as a stand-alone, freak-show phenomenon.

Honest Place may be structured somewhat like the showy, surface cavalcade of Vegas itself, but Cooper's literary musings are anchored with relevant, interesting facts and some sharp insights. This may be the shallow end of the pool in terms of functional, well-argued conclusions, but there's plenty to see on the surface. EVAN JAMES