Thursday, September 16, 2010

Lost Vegas

I finished reading Dr. Pauly's Lost Vegas a month ago, and promised I'd post my thoughts about it, then never did. The reason is simple, though hard to explain. It's because I haven't been able to figure out what to say about it.

Lemme back up and start with the basics. Lost Vegas is Pauly's intensely personal look at the city, framed around the visits he made here between 2005 and 2008. Though there are a few trips for lesser poker events or just for recreation, most of them were to cover the World Series of Poker, at first for hire, then later for his own blog, as it became popular enough to sustain him via the advertising revenue it drew (or at least this is what one surmises).

As a poker guy, I was surprised to find that the parts of the book that were least interesting were the parts about the poker tournaments. That's likely in part because I had followed the WSOP closely enough during the years in question, including at least intermittently on Pauly's blog, that I knew the stories, so there wasn't much new.

But the real, deeper explanation, I believe, for why the book seems to drag a bit when describing the poker action is that it's no longer so much about Pauly and what he is observing and experiencing as it is about the subject, and there are stretches that become more journalism or history than personal story-telling. The chapter that seemed most out of place was the one about Archie Karas (chapter 32). All of a sudden, Pauly basically disappears as narrator, and we're reading third-hand stories that could have been compiled by anybody. I kept thinking, "C'mon, get back to your own narrative!"

That reaction, I think, is key to understanding what makes most of the book work, and what makes it unlike anything else you have read or ever will read about Vegas: It's Pauly's own story. Nobody else could write it because it didn't happen to anybody else. If you have read his stuff over the years, you know that he has a unique point of view as well as an enviable creative talent for relating it--sometimes deeply insightful, sometimes wickedly funny, sometimes painfully confessional, usually sacrilegious and iconoclastic, always with a keen eye for detail. Most people writing about their lives--even their vacation lives in a place as intrinsically interesting and potentially volatile as Vegas--are, well, boring. Not Pauly. His descriptions of his successes and failures, his adventures, his fears, his devils, his pleasures, his degeneracy, his friendships--these are the book's raison d'etre, and they are a blast to read.

Now let me try to explain why I had trouble figuring out what to write about the book.

First, I've never before read a book in which I know so many of the people described. I am not a deep insider in the poker media circles; I kind of hover around the perimeter, and that's about it. But maybe half of the characters a reader meets in Lost Vegas, including the author, are people whose writing I read regularly, and/or people I've met, worked with, worked for, shared meals with, have as contacts in Outlook or Skype or on my cell phone, played poker with, and a few that I would even call friends. I know most of the real names behind the pseudonyms. I had hoped to somehow parlay this bit of acquaintance into some unique perspective on the book, but nothing ever coalesced in my brain. After a month of letting it simmer, I've given up. The little thrills of "Hey, I know him!" recognition I got from reading about folks in the poker world whose lives have intersected with mine will just have to remain as my own personal pleasures, because I haven't figured out anything to say about them that would be meaningful to anybody else.

But my biggest failing as a writer is this: I wanted to pen a brilliant commentary on why my reaction to Vegas is so profoundly different than Pauly's is. Lost Vegas is all about his love/hate relationship with the city, how he loves the people with whom he interacts here and loves all of the things he can indulge in here that aren't part of his everyday life--but, simultaneously, how those temptations are toxic to him, and how he can't stop the indulgences until they are pulling him down into financial, physical, and emotional ruin. "All I did know was that in less than a year, Las Vegas had brought out the worst in me, magnifying my existing problems, inflaming my addictions, and intensifying my deviancy" (page 91). And, "I frolic. I conquer. I stumble. I crash hard. The missteps rip me apart like shrapnel. The nonstop gambling action soothes me like a lick of ice cream on a hot summer day" (page 182).

I sort of get that on an intellectual level. After all, I see it all around me, day after day. I'm vaguely aware that that's what many, perhaps most, people are experiencing to one degree or another as they visit here--in fact, that that's what they come for.

But I don't get it in any sort of sympatico sense. I'm not interested in gambling, except for poker, and don't get any thrill out of it. I don't drink or smoke or use drugs. I don't care for casual sexual hook-ups. I might be the only single, straight male who has lived here for four years without setting foot in a strip club or a night club, not because I'm a prude, but just because they hold little allure for me. In short, I am basically immune to and unaffected by the very set of temptations that this city was designed to feature. That reaction, as you can tell, is about as far removed from Pauly's as it could possibly be.

I had hoped to ponder this for a while and come up with a dazzlingly genius explanation for why Pauly can come here and experience such amazing highs and lows from the sins of Sin City, while I sit in the middle of it all, year after year, and say, "Meh" to it. But, again, after a month of trying to get that particular pot to boil, I've decided it's not going to. He and I are very, very different personalities, and I don't think any amout of verbiage I could throw at the question will be able to probe any deeper than that.

And maybe that's why I enjoyed the book so much--because his way of being in the world, and specifically of being in Las Vegas, is so thoroughly a contrast to my own. Pauly sees the same things that I see every day, but experiences them with emotions that they just don't generate in me, and it was delightful and thrilling to get inside the mind of a wholly different, articulate observer--sort of a Being John Malkovich kind of sensation.

I was about to list here the handful of typos I spotted. I can't help noticing them--I started doing copy editing in high school, and once a copy editor always a copy editor. But now it just seems petty to do so, and probably too boring to read, so skip it. I'll just say that for a self-published, self-edited book, it is blessedly light on such errors.

I hope I won't be abusing copyright fair-use doctrine to insert here a few of my favorite bits, to give you a flavor of the writing:

[Page 20] The Wild Wild West was a low budget casino, a side of Las Vegas
missing from guidebooks and travel magazines. Now I understood why. It was like
walking into a time machine and zapping yourself back to 1981. The clientele at
the Wild Wild West were older than Bob Hope and sat at the bar in silence while
drinking $1.49 draft beer specials and chasing keno jackpots. Geriatric ladies
shoved pennies into slot machines in between huffs on bulky oxygen tanks
attached to the backs of their wheelchairs. It was a hospice with slots, and the
owners were more than happy to accept the remnants of Social Security checks.

[Page 24] I gazed at the skyline of the faux New York City in the distance.
The collective fakeness of The Strip's carbon copy of NYC made me even more
homesick. I finally trudged back inside to log onto Party Poker. If you ever
want to feel like a degenerate loser, play online poker in Las Vegas on a
dial-up connection. Sylvia Plath level depression began sinking in as I missed
another flush draw and realized I was smoking my last bit of ganja. I considered
turning on the oven and sealing my windows to escape my misery.

[Page 62] In less-sanitized terms, Binion's turned into a piece of shit
after Becky ran her deceased father's casino into the ground. What Binion's
lacked in class, it made up in character. The lighting was intentionally poor in
order to shield your eyes from the dismal plight of its inhabitants. Depending
on where you stood the schizophrenic air-conditioning would either freeze your
tits solid or leave you sweating your ass off. If you dropped money on the
floor, you were better off letting it rot than risk contracting some form of
flesh-eating bacteria trying to pick it up. The waitresses were hot pieces of
ass--during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Binion's perpetually smelled of Ben-Gay,
stale cigars, and a truck stop urinal. Downtown's dinginess made it a perfect
backdrop for the Main Event. When you have to step over people lying in puddles
of their own urine on Fremont Street in order to walk into the Horseshoe, it's a
harsh reminder that you're only one bad beat away from lying face down in the
gutter yourself.

[Page 73] I thought about philosophers like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and
Sartre and how the face of 20th Century philosophy might have changed if they
had frequented Las Vegas. How could you maintain a meaningless and bleak existence when your face was buried in the chest of a tweaking former homecoming queen who used your nose as her personal ass-battering ram?

[Page 137] On the first day, I wagered more money than my old man used to
make in a month humping a shitty desk job for an insurance company in Midtown
Manhattan. I only won two of my four games in a gut-wrenching session, but won
my monster bet on UCLA. Seriously, nothing in this life is sweeter than cashing
a monster ticket at the sports book and counting along inside my head with the
cashier as she counts out my winnings in front of me. I have to wipe the drool
from my mouth and hide my erection as the cashier slides the stack of money
toward me.

[Page 138] The UNLV loss wiped out all of my profit from the first day. I
stewed in a pot of gambler's rage. I tore up a couple of my losing tickets and
watched the small pieces of paper flutter to the carpet. If I had been alone at
home when I suffered those losses, I would have punched a hole in the wall or
tossed an entire litter of kittens into the microwave. Consumed with ire, all I
wanted to do was head-butt the lone Oregon Ducks fan in the sports book.

[Page 237] The guilt-ridden sinners hide from the sneers of God and become
the wayward refugees that pious little Mormon children pray for every night.
Thousands of citizens with good reputations, solid marriages, and impeccable
criminal records become shattered casualties in hazy weekends of Dionysian
decadence while holed up in a room at the Stratosphere shooting pharmaceutical
cocaine into the veins of their feet with a 21-year-old from Boise who moved to
Vegas to become a blackjack dealer but ended up on the pole. After she orders
$500 in room service and clogs up the toilet with a nasty case of diarrhea,
another sucker realizes that he should have waited to sober up before slurring
marital vows in front of a fat and sweaty Elvis at the Graceland Wedding Chapel.

[Page 175] The demons mercilessly poke pin-sized holes in your soul and all
of your warmth, creativity, and morality oozes out to become part of a stream of
hopelessness that flows all the way back to Lost Vegas.

OK, enough of the free previews. If you want more of that, go order your own copy here. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


Keiser said...

"I don't care for casual sexual hook-ups. I might be the only single, straight male who has lived here for four years without setting foot in a strip club or a night club, not because I'm a prude, but just because they hold little allure for me. In short, I am basically immune to and unaffected by the very set of temptations that this city was designed to feature."

Actually I moved here when I was 23, I'm 26 now and besides some on/off dating I've been pretty much single the whole time. No strip clubs. I know a lot of guys that don't go, you don't actually get anything for your money. You're not alone! Also somehow I hate gambling, yet I'm a poker player. Well I really just hate gambling without an edge. If you understand why Vegas is here, it's not hard to avoid the money pits.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading Dr. P since he started his blog; I have even gone so far as to exchanged private emails with him on several occassions but I still did not care for the book. Maybe I was expecting more, but I felt like he just copied most of his blog and but it in a book.

It was alarming to me that it had to be SELF-PUBLISHED even though he is a "known" poker writer with World Series of Poker media creditenials; not saying anything is wrong with self-publishing, but that is usually the method of last resort and there's usually a good reason why it had to be self-published.

In my past, I have used the same substances Dr.P has used to alter his mind, I like the same music he likes, and we even graduated college/high school the same year, but with all those similiar interest and past interest, I found nothing in the book that keep me wanting to read more and thats what good books should do.

I read every page but I felt like I was reading the same pages over and over. It seemed like he wrote too much about strippers and whores. I have been to titty bars and full nude strip clubs many, many times in my life, but unless you are there, it does no good to make it a central theme of a book and I found that to be the case with several of the themes in his book. I also felt like he was still holding back and not letting us see what really goes on.

All said, I give Dr. P an A for a writer but this book was a D- and not worth what little money it did cost.

faybarpio said...

I am currently reading Pauly's book, and enjoying it very much. When I finish it, I'll be sure to get in touch with the author and let him know what I thought- pro or con. Of course, so that my opinion matters, I'll attach my name to it.

Anonymous' review posted above mine is useless, IMO. Unless he comes back and signs his/her name to it.