13 December 2010

Viva Las Vegas

Inside Las Vegas by Mario Puzo 1977

This is a medium-sized hardback in a glossy dustjacket that has a couple of tears on the back where it has caught on something while being slid in or out of a bookshelf. The cover is a photograph of a neon sign that the designers have had made up showing the author's name and the book's title. There is nothing to indicate the scale of this neon, but the impression is of a sign high up on a hotel block humming with static above the Strip. More likely, though, it is only a few inches or maybe a couple of feet high. It's the sort of thing I can imagine spending time as a curiosity in the house of a Puzo or someone connected with the production of the book.

First thing on a random opening is this extraordinary double-page spread of photos:

I am instantly immersed into a heady broth of 70s crapness. The tacky glam outfits, the spangly top hat, his floppy pouch, the cluttered cubicles that the performers seem to be emerging from and that cigarette just ooze desperation. But these are fine photos in an inspired page layout and I just know I'm going to have a ball reading this book.

Front bits. The preliminaries to this book are really well done. Starting with a photo of a flared hand of $10,000 bills on the pastedown, the next two leaves comprise a grainy full-bleed image of a jet touching down in what looks like the middle of a scrubby desert. The following two pages are another grainy full-bleed image, this time of the arrivals hall at Las Vegas airport, where the recently landed are filing with their hand-luggage past two banks of one-armed bandits. Turning the page again, there is another double spread which is a colour aerial photo of the twinkling lights of Vegas and, over this, the author and title are printed along with photographer and publisher credits. As you turn the pages, the effect is very like the title sequence of a movie and this might have something to do with the fact that the publishers, Grosset and Dunlap (established 1898) were bought by the film production company Filmways only three years before this book was published.

The next double-page spread to unfold is another colour aerial photo of the Strip over which is laid the nitty-gritty of copyright and Library of Congress catalog data. These normally dry details are quite revealing in this book. The text copyright has been credited not to Mario Puzo but to his brother Anthony Cleri, a number of other people including two Puzos, and to Anthony Cleri again, but this time as guardian to Christopher, Maria, James and Gina Puzo. It's clear that the author of The Godfather put family at the centre of his life. Similarly, although the photographers are named as Michael Abramson and Susan Fowler-Gallagher, copyright to the images is with Howard Chapnick who was head of the influential Black Star picture agency.

Leafthrough. This book seems to be as much about the images it contains as any insights that Mario Puzo's writing may bring. To flick through these pages is to experience an instant, palpable sense of a time and a place. It's a relentless sequence of grainy gaming rooms, sharp outfits, tacky shows and really desperate faces. Judging by the layout, the text seems like a bit of an afterthought, often being squeezed into a single column down the side of a strong image that has been set across the other page-and-a-half of space.

Looking into it, though, the text and the photos actually complement each other perfectly. The tone of the writing is amiable-gruff; a monologue that I can imagine being delivered with plenty of hand gestures and confidential asides, punctuated by an occasional cheek-imploding tug on a stubby cigar. Gambling had been ingrained in Puzo's life since his teenage years and he speaks with the authority of experience rather than research.

He's particularly good at getting across the complex, contradictory nature of gambling as a primal appetite, up there with drinking and sex. From the off, his introduction to the book launches a robust defence of his favourite vice, pointing out that "drunkards are tragic or romantic, murderers interesting" while gamblers are merely seen as foolish. After a tasty swipe at religious leaders as "those supreme hustlers of the long shot", Puzo explains that, for him, gambling has been a route to self-awareness. Admittedly, his claims that gambling helped preserve his marriage for thirty years by keeping him too busy to chase after other women and forced him to write more by putting him in debt seem a little ropey - although I suspect Puzo was well aware of how much self-delusion there may have been in those observations.

But this book is only about gambling because it's about Las vegas. The city comes across as some kind of sneakily efficient predator - an irresistable, glowing blob lurking in the middle of the Nevada desert that, in 1975, attracted an astonishing nine million visitors. Visitors who throng into vast gaming pits where they are sedated by second hand air, a lack of natural light and, apparently, an absence of clocks. Visitors whose resources are steadily drained by the house percentages which keep working against them every minute they spend there. Puzo advises that the best way to win in Vegas is to fly in for one evening: "Take the 5 p.m. plane from Los Angeles and leave on the midnight plane. To Hong Kong if necessary."

The trick that drives Las Vegas works because of the city's artificiality, its self-reliance and its isolation. It runs on ambiguous codes of morality and behaviour that have their roots in the mix of influences involved in its development and in the balancing act that the city has had to maintain in the face of Federal and State laws. For its displacement of Reno as the gambling capital, Las Vegas could thank a cast of characters as diverse as mobster Bugsy Siegel, who built the magnificent Flamingo Hotel, and the Mormon banker E Parry Thomas, who gave Howard Hughes the means to build his empire in the desert.

By the time this book was written, Vegas had learnt that it had to give every appearance of playing straight. More money could be made through the regular house percentages being legally worked against several million gamblers than by fleecing those few who might still turn up to a place with a reputation for bad dealing.

In the 70s, vegas offered the complete welcome; the ultimate gambling experience with Sinatra and Danny la Rue thrown in. There was even a casino where punters could have their kids entertained on the balcony level by circus acts while they hunched over blackjack tables below. And everyone, it seems, was firmly polite from the croupiers and 'hosts' to the collectors who chased unpaid markers. Some establishments even saw it in their hearts to offer cleaned-out gamblers a free meal and their airfare home.

For all his qualified affection for the place, Puzo comes across as a realist. He's well aware that no one can ever really beat the house in the long run. He buttered his bread on a different side and is often quoted as saying he wrote The Godfather purely for the money. In an appreciation of Puzo after his death, Francis Coppola related the story of how they would often work on the screenplay in a gambling casino: "Mario...was a terrible gambler. I have memories of him sitting dominating the roulette wheel, bored, pushing huge chips over toward a general area of the board and losing over and over. But then, shamed and beaten, we would go back up to work saying 'we're losing thousands down here, but we're making millions upstairs'."

6 June 2010

All the Answers

Dr. Brewer's Guide to Science by the Rev. Dr. Brewer Published by Jarrold and Sons 1874

This is a dumpy little brick-shaped and brick-coloured book with a faded embossed design around the covers and a motif of gilt ivy leaves to the spine. One edge of the spine cover has come loose so that it flaps around as irrititatingly as an unglued sole. After more than a century of opening and closing the front cover, it's a common enough problem with reference books of this age and it has the small compensation of revealing the common practice of Victorian bookbinders who would reinforce the inside of spine covers with printers' scraps. This copy reveals a fragment from Jarrold's catalogue which lists six or seven history titles, including [A Child]'s Pathway Through the History of England. With Heads of the Sovereigns. Sounds a bit gruesome, but they certainly knew how to add value back then.

First thing on a random opening is a continuation of the stream of quick-fire questions and answers that makes up the bulk of the book. Here, the questions seem to be about clouds. I learn that Britain is more cloudy than Egypt and that the thickness of a cloud can be discovered by walking up a mountain. The last couple of questions in this section touch on the subject of electricity, stating that the shape of clouds is related to how much electrical charge they hold with "the most fantastical shapes" being formed by those that are "most highly electrified". There's always a fascination, and perhaps a little smugness, in sitting at my gently whirring computer surrounded by various sleek appliances, reading a Victorian take on the mysteries of electricity. What did they know? How could they possibly have imagined the world 100 years down the line? And then I realise that I don't actually know if it's true that electricity plays any part in the shape of clouds.

The front bits give the full title of the book as A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar. Some of the Reverend Dr Brewer's other books are listed under his name and he seems to be a bit of an all-rounder covering everything from Roman history to book-keeping by single and double entry. Not only that, but he was clearly a Victorian best-seller as this is stated to be the 32nd edition, Hundred-and-Sixty-First Thousand. Though it was first published four years before this, there is no mention in this list of his most famous book, the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which is still in print.

Leafthrough. As mentioned, this is a sequence of questions and answers relating to everyday (1874-style) occurrences and the science that was understood to lie behind them. The queries seem to be sequential with each answer giving rise to the next question - a bit like a child continually asking "why?" in response to a parent's every explanation. Even though there is a sequence to the questions, they are grouped under chapter headings that range from the broad scope of subjects such as "Air", "Water" and "Light" to the very specific such as "Phosphuretted Hydrogen Gas". This last, it turns out, is "the very offensive effluvia of dead bodies in church yards".

Looking into it.
Q. What is the origin of this book?
A. This book has its genesis in the habit of its author of keeping a pencil and paper by him whenever he was reading in order to jot down what he considered to be useful or interesting pieces of information. These scraps he would collect and file in different lockers.
Q. What is the purpose of this book?
A. To provide edifying information on the scientific basis of the everyday experiences of an increasingly literate population. Also, it seems to have a running remit to point out the niftiness of God in putting the universe together. In this sense, the book's publishing history, from around 1841 to this edition of 1875, encompasses a period when anyone connected with religion would have had to grapple with the implications of Darwin's Origin of the Species which appeared in 1859. Brewer's response is to stick doggedly with the notion of divine design, or teleology. A substantial section of the index is headed "God's wisdom shown in..." and the subjects that follow range from the down of birds to November rains and the froth of saliva.

Q. Why is it set out in questions and answers?
A. The Reverend Dr Ebeneezer Cobham Brewer was ordained as a Baptist minister and was the son of a Norwich schoolmaster who was active in the Baptist congregation of St Mary's church. He would have been instinctively aware of how the question-and-answer structure of a catechism could be used to convey information simply and memorably. In fact, given the level of complexity and verbosity of reference material at that time, the approach seems remarkably prescient, anticipating the e-generation's reliance on the FAQ and probably explaining the book's remarkable popularity.
Q. Is/was this book any use?
A. Although one century's fact is another century's fallacy, and no one now would rely on the accuracy of the information it contains, the sales of this and Brewer's other works suggest that it was considered a useful addition to the domestic libraries of the Victorian middle classes. For the 21st-century reader, at this point in publishing history, a little reference work like this is a reminder that the basic motives that drive the digital world are the same as those that drove the generations who had to rely on print. Brewer's solutions to the problems of presenting information and stimulating interest and curiosity were entirely modern. In particular, he did not expect his readers to passively digest the nuggets of knowledge that make up his book. An appendix contains a list of "miscellaneous questions for the ingenious reader to solve".

Q. How popular was this book?
A. From its earliest publication around 1841, Brewer's Guide to Science went through 47 editions, the last one being published in 1905. As it turned out it was fortunate that Brewer's original idea of selling the copyright to the publisher Thomas Jarrold for £50 was rejected in favour of a profit-sharing arrangement. He made enough money from the book to travel extensively and devote his time to the many other titles that he produced, including the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.
Q. What is the strangest question and answer in the book?
A. Reading through almost any sequence of questions and answers in the book builds up a strange sensation of acquiring a 19th century mindset. It's a bit like having a slightly one-sided conversation with a pompous Victorian polymath. Aside from individually startling questions like "is a man in metal armour in danger from lightning?", it's when he latches onto a subject that things can get really odd. His whole take on colour, for example, revolves around a synaesthetic interpretation of the visible world in which colours have corresponding notes (red, a deep bass or yellow a middle C) all produced by undulations of the ether. With a religious tone underpinning the explanation of every scientific certainty, there is a constant sense of there being more things in heaven and earth than we can ever be aware of. Knowledge and understanding are things to be pursued but never actually obtained, like a will o' the wisp.
Q. What is a will o' the wisp?
A. It's a glowing mist of light sometimes seen on marshland at night. It will run away from you if you move towards it and it will follow you if you flee from it, but you can never catch it in your grasp. It is caused, according to Dr Brewer, by our old friend phosphuretted hydrogen, also known as ignis fatuus.