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'."

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