Books

Rachel Kushner, Nevada, and Spiritual America

1: Written on 3/22/13 before I left Los Angeles for Laughlin, Nevada, a place my friend Ian calls a “cluster of off-strip-style casinos on the Colorado River where few people are younger than forty.” Also written before I’d read the last ten percent of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers—the Amazon Kindle measures progress in percentages—because I wanted to finish it in Laughlin, on scene. Revised both in Laughlin and back in LA. Revisions in CAPS when convenient, blended into the text when not.

Before we get going here, I just want to clarify something—this piece, for the most part, is going to be about the week (FOUR NIGHTS) I spent gambling alone, reading alone, and loafing poolside at the River Palms in Laughlin, Nevada, an approximately ten-casino town on the Colorado River, across from Bullhead City, Arizona. (ACTUALLY I SPENT FAR MORE TIME IN MY ROOM THAN BY THE POOL ON ACCOUNT OF THE FACT THAT THE POOL WAS MORE OF A MOTEL POOL THAN A “RESORT” POOL WHICH SHOULDN’T’VE SURPRISED ME SINCE MY ROOM COST $24.99… ALSO YOU’LL NOTE THAT I DIDN’T SAY I WROTE IN LAUGHLIN AS IF WRITING DOESN’T COUNT AS A WAY TO PASS TIME.) But the excuse for this piece, and the book that got Nevada on my mind in the first place, is Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, a novel whose motorcycle-racing and art-making heroine comes from Reno, a place that Kushner refers to as “Spiritual America,” a term that refers to the artist Richard Prince, whose Girlfriends series repurposed photos of girls with motorcycles from the back pages of biker magazines.

So this piece is going to be about Nevada. But I want to tell you about The Flamethrowers first, because hopefully telling you about that book will whet your appetite for reading about my experience sitting by the pool alone in the desert (AGAIN I SPENT VERY LITTLE TIME BY THE POOL), and also make it feel like I’m writing about sitting alone by the pool in Nevada for a good reason.

I got into Rachel Kushner through her first novel, Telex from Cuba. That book details the last days of the United Fruit Company’s—now Chiquita’s—operations in Cuba, before Fidel Castro’s revolution, and the story centers itself on a family called the Stiteses. One Stites son, KC, is a sentimental mama’s boy—he narrates much of the book in the first person. The other, Delmore, has defected to the hills to join the rebels and haunt his family from afar as the United Fruit Company’s country-club, fragrant-garden, white-linen Cuba goes up in flames.

What I liked so much about this book is the way it showed how permissive sentimentality is. The book shows how a sentimentality-clouded memory fans the flames of racism and oppression by being totally unwilling to own up to history. Like, the sentimental memory thinks that, because history happened, history cannot be judged. And this sentimental aspect is frustrating because to win a moral debate with a sentimental person, you can’t just, say, tell KC Stites that it was bad that his father forced the cane cutters into indentured servitude by forcing them to shop on credit at the company store. Because he will negate your claim with the response, “That’s the way things were.” So instead you have to somehow persuade KC that, actually, what he remembers is not how things were. That what he remembers is a complete fabrication due to the way in which his missing moral lens has distorted his memory, and that when he says, “That’s the way things were,” he’s lying. But that’s difficult to do. It would be difficult to persuade KC Stites that the entire life he remembers for himself is completely bogus.

So, an exposé of sentimentality is what I took away from Telex from Cuba. And, on account of this, I paid special attention when, in the opening pages of The Flamethrowers, Kushner’s protagonist—a young woman whose real name we don’t learn but who gets nicknamed Reno—declares:

Sometimes he’d take us to the casino, leave us in the parking lot with bottle rockets. Or play chicken with the other cars on I-80, with me and Scott and Andy in the backseat covering our eyes. I come from reckless, unsentimental people.

Later, The Flamethrowers comes around to revolt and an international upper class under siege, though this time, we see things not through sentimental KC Stites, but through fearless Reno. But reading the “unsentimental people” declaration in The Flamethrowers’ opening pages, I wondered if Kushner was signaling a deliberate change of pace. Like maybe she’d planted a flag in tropical Cuba and spun the globe of possible novels to the opposite side of things, to arid, lower-class Reno, Nevada, and decided to plant a flag there, with deadbeat dads, dingy motels, pawn shops, and motorcycles.

From Nevada, protagonist Reno migrates to New York City where she falls in with a scene of successful artists and specifically with a guy whose family owns a factory in Italy that workers are revolting against. The most riveting scenes of the book surround this revolt, but the best parts of the book surround the scene in New York, where Reno and her friends, lovers, and acquaintances meditate on and use their day-to-day to illustrate how life and art are hopelessly merged.

I had not put myself out there yet. I could delay it until I knew for certain that what I was doing was good. Until I knew for certain I was doing the right thing. The next thing would be this Valera project. It was half art and half life, and from there, I felt, something would emerge.

And this is Reno’s first friend in New York, Giddle, speaking:

Neon blinked into my window all night long, startling me from sleep. At first I thought I would hate the neon, but I began to like it, the way it lent this air of tragedy to my so-called life, my performance as a waitress, making me feel as if I were living inside a film about a lonely woman who threw her life away to work in a diner. And I was that woman!

The epiphany of the book surrounds this merger of life and art, and the strength of that epiphany made me like The Flamethrowers even more than I liked Telex from Cuba. So that’s settled. This is a great book and I’m sure there are many, many critics and essayists out there who are going to tell you in more detail than I have exactly why it’s great. (JAMES WOOD: “…A PURE EXPLOSION OF NOW…”) Reading this thing, you can feel it being talked about—questions about the nature of truth, questions about a female protagonist who breaks the world motorcycle land speed record but never really gets around the dominance of the man in her life, questions about class and the nature of revolt in this country, thoughts about how well Kushner evokes New York in the seventies before New York became a theme park. So there we go. Lots to say, great book, other people will tell you why but you should read it yourself, Rachel Kushner’s a great writer and I can’t wait for her next one, etc., etc., etc.

But still. A question remains.

Why Nevada? Why is Reno “Spiritual America” as opposed to Idaho or Mississippi? Did Mississippi used to be Spiritual America but now it’s moved? Why is the intersection of the industrial world, art, and life useful to channel through a narrator from Reno? Why is Nevada “the land Artists romanticized”? And why do other artists I know love Nevada so much? I spent every winter break from college sitting by the side of the Extraterrestrial Highway near Area 51 in the middle of Nevada, getting stoned and watching fighter jets steal across a sky that seemed larger and more dome-like than elsewhere. But… Why are two of my classmates from CalArts also here in Nevada on separate ventures, one to look at land art (which Kushner refers to in the book), and one (SAM FREILICH) to gamble because he’s from LA and has a special relationship to kitsch that us non-native Angelenos can’t quite make sense of? What’s with this place?

SAM FREILICH, 4/6/13: Thanks for the intro, Tom. To be honest I’m not my sure if my relation to kitsch is all that special, or at least I hope it’s not all that special. I didn’t come to Vegas to ogle. I came here more to disappear than to revel Harmony Korine-style in the uniquely US debauchery available here. Right now I’m sitting in a hotel room twenty-five floors above rings of pools clogged with tiny ant-like people and, in one of the pools, I can see dolphins, real dolphins. Twenty-five floors up, high enough to hear wind and planes shooting over the desert, and I can still hear the bass from the poolside club. But the important fact is that I get to be entirely alone. I can be simultaneously plugged in and tuned out. Though I want to stop because I’m worried I’m sounding overly poetic, and the last thing this place needs is another guy trying to poeticize it. I’m no Dave Hickey, and he said it best when [I GOTTA LOOK UP THIS QUOTE WHEN I GET HOME]. (I also like that time here means shit. It’s four in the morning, it might as well be noon. Maybe there’s something spiritual in that, an unsentimental sort of timelessness. I’m going to stop because I’m going to go downstairs and get a whiskey sour. Maybe I’ll even gamble.)

It’s now eleven in the morning on the first floor of the River Palms in Laughlin. My room has a view of dirt because this place is plugged into a slope. I’m sitting in the chair beside the window, looking at the dirt and the parking structure behind it. I had the option when I made my reservation to have a river view or a mountain view. This is the mountain view. Though I suspect that if I weren’t on the first floor, if I were up maybe above the fifth floor, I would have a real mountain view. I don’t really mind though. The sheets were extremely clean when I got here and so was the bathroom.

On my drive here I was a bit nervous. I cleaned my apartment before I left, telling myself I’d want to come home to something organized. But really I did it to avoid getting on the road. From my truck, I called friends I hadn’t talked to in a while. On the phone with my mom, I avoided telling her I was on my way here. I told her I was stuck in traffic. She asked where I was going. I don’t know what I said, but I didn’t want her to know I was going to Nevada alone.

After writing this morning, I’m going to go get a meal and a haircut. Last night at a casino bar called the Loser’s Lounge a girl told me she liked my movies. I said, “Which one?” She said the one where Jim Carrey played me. I said Andy Kaufman is dead. I’d been tempted to get a haircut before this just because when traveling I like to do everyday things—get haircut, get oil change, go to the mall. But after the Kaufman comment I became committed. After talking to her I watched a cover band play Tom Petty. Then I won thirty bucks at roulette. Roulette is by far my favorite game and I’ll describe it more as we go. I like roulette because when I win I feel like I’ve successfully predicted the future. And when I lose I feel like I’ve failed to predict the future, but that I could’ve predicted the future if I’d been on my game more. There’s a line from The Flamethrowers that relates to this.

Lonzi said the only thing worth loving was what was to come, and since what was to come was unforeseeable—only a cretin or liar would try to predict the future—the future had to be lived now, in the now, as intensity.

I guess that makes me a cretin and a liar then.

 

 

2: Written at the Harrah’s Starbucks starting around four in the afternoon, twenty hours after I got to Laughlin  

Last night at a restaurant called The Lodge I sat at the bar and asked the bartender where I should go out. He had a big mustache, like the cowboy in The Big Lebowski. He talked like somebody from Wisconsin—lots of “you betcha”s—even though he grew up in Texas. At the end of the meal he thanked me for my company and I said I’d be back the next night, which is tonight. He said that would be a good idea since they’d have prime rib for only $9.99.

The bartender recommended the aforementioned Loser’s Lounge along with the Bikini Sports Lounge in the mall. I went to both those places. Today I went to the buffet at Harrah’s, which the barista at the unbranded coffee shop in my own inferior hotel-casino had recommended, then I got a haircut at the Harrah’s salon, then I talked to my mom on the phone from the Harrah’s pool deck, which I’d snuck onto because it overhangs the Colorado River and has nice, reddish Mexican tiles, unlike the textured concrete of the pool deck at the River Palms. I told my mom where I was and she said she hoped I’d have a good time. I said I’d come here to write. I think the fuller answer would be that I came here to reconnect with the loneliness, solitude, sadness, capacity for happiness, etc., that I tend to bury in my day-to-day in Los Angeles. But I didn’t want to tell my mom that I’d come to Laughlin to be sad, even if I could’ve explained that in finding sadness, in recalibrating with it, I thought I might open a door, one that leads to a truer happiness. Or even if I could’ve explained that in finding sadness, I thought I might remind myself why writing was necessary, what it bails me out from, and thereby write better than usual. I didn’t tell my mom any of that though. That’s the kind of writer instinct that seems to violate biological imperatives and make mothers nervous.

 

 

2.1: In which we get our gawking at the Spiritual America that’s on such loud display here in Laughlin out of the way, because you were waiting for it anyway and I don’t want you to be preoccupied. Also I should mention that Rachel Kushner does not gawk at Spiritual American culture at all. Her scenes out west, however, are definitely cinematic—shifting gears on a motorcycle at high speed, truckers at truck stops—while she renders the New York art scene more realistically. (RACHEL KUSHNER SAID AT HER READING AT SKYLIGHT BOOKS IN LA ON 4/2/13 THAT A CRITIC DESCRIBED THE NEW YORK SCENES AS CINEMATIC BUT I THINK THE SPIRITUAL AMERICA SCENES COMPARATIVELY ARE WAY MORE CINEMATIC AND I THINK THIS IS BECAUSE THE NEW YORK ART SCENE WAS A MORE NATURAL PLACE FOR HER TO DESCRIBE AND BECAUSE IT’S DIFFICULT FOR ME TO READ ABOUT A YOUNG ART-MAJOR PROTAGONIST RIDING A MOTORCYCLE REALLY FAST WITHOUT SUSPECTING SOME KIND OF ULTERIOR MOTIVE ON KUSHNER’S PART.)

I went to the buffet at Harrah’s. I got food, sat down at my booth, realized that I would need to get more food to make the expense of this place worth it, and began to write in my journal to kill time until I got hungry again. This buffet cost nineteen dollars though it would’ve been fourteen had I had a Harrah’s Diamond card. The cashier seemed upset with me when I said I didn’t have one of these cards. I think I was the only one in there who paid full price. I had penne pasta and a pork chop and a Diet Pepsi and then I couldn’t eat anymore. But I was sitting there, journaling, hoping I’d get hungry when this really obese guy sat down two tables over. I disliked him. I forgive obese people who look tough—the gangsters, the mechanics. But when I see soft-looking obese guys, guys who look like bank tellers, I don’t cut them the same slack. It’s like the tough guys are putting their weight to some kind of purpose while the bank tellers have no excuse. In any case this obese guy in a turquoise shirt that went down to his knees is fully panting from hunger as he hurries to his table, like he needs to eat fast so that saliva doesn’t spill down his chin, like he better get something in there to sop it all up. He picks up his biscuit before he settles into his chair. He cuts the biscuit in half. He stuffs a piece of ham into the biscuit. Ravenous glee ripples his jowls. He doesn’t wait for his wife—the ham biscuit is in his mouth and he’s chewing by the time she sits down with him. I see all this and I stop what I’m writing in my journal to record it. I describe the scene in my journal, and as I do, I hear him retch. He stands up and he pukes up some biscuit, the solid part of which he catches in his hand, the liquid part of which splatters on his shirt. I turn back to my journal and write to my future self, my imaginary friend, “You will never believe this.” He wipes off his shirt and looks faint. On my way out I look at his wife to see if she’s embarrassed and I see that she’s trying to pretend it didn’t happen.

Aside from that guy puking on his shirt at the exact moment at which I was writing about him, and aside from the girl at the Bikini Sports Lounge with a tattoo on her leg that said, “Fuck you,” in Laughlin, I’ve seen: more people hobbling than normal, a guy about my age and with a scraggly beard focusing extremely intently on where to play his roulette chips, a lot of senior citizens awake at a very late hour, the concerned expression of spouses standing behind their partners as they play video poker, a thirty-year-old guy pleading with his parents for a hotel room of his own, young guys who look like they’re from inland Orange County with tight-fitting surfer-brand t-shirts and sleeves of tattoos and gel in their hair and surfer caps pulled down low over their foreheads, an older guy with a shirt that says, “I just look illegal,” and a couple of girls who I thought might be people I knew, from home, from somewhere, until the light shifted and the vision flickered out. On my way here I thought that maybe I would meet somebody like me. I thought that, because Laughlin would be what it is, I would stand out, and if I saw somebody like me, she would stand out too, and it would be easy for us to find each other. I recognize the perversity of this thought, though, this exaggerated form of a thought I have everywhere, that I wear my thoughts like my clothes, that what I’m thinking is on display for the people around me.

 

 

3: Written on morning two in my room at the River Palms, which I now feel attached to. Partly on account of how clean the sheets were, I have none of that get-me-out-of-here, cheap-room anxiety. Also, though on my drive out here I dreaded being miserable here, even though being miserable was kind of the point, I haven’t really been miserable at all. Rather, I’ve been happy to have the time to write, free not just from social engagements, but from the expectation that I should have social engagements—I’ve spent no time wishing somebody would text me for a beer. Also, I have a hard time writing about my own sadness in general because writing itself makes me happy and makes me forget about it.

This morning I woke up to the sound of my neighbors having sex. Yesterday I heard them too. Yesterday, I wrote in my journal something along the lines of, “Listening to strangers have sex is fun for exactly three seconds.” But then, this morning, hearing them again, the shock factor dispersed and it became kind of funny. She moaned, he kept quiet until it came time for his fateful grunt. I hoped they would stop so that I could go back to sleep and then, when they didn’t, I got out of bed and brushed my teeth and drowned out the sound of them with water from the faucet. I brushed my teeth. I rinsed out my thermos and left my room and walked down the long, basically subterranean hall towards the casino to get coffee; I walked into the now-familiar, massive, empty, carpeted, windowless hall for conferences; I went up the stairs between the turned-off escalators to the casino to cross to the unbranded coffee shop. As always, I passed some stalwarts, pushing the spin button on the slot machines, smoking long cigarettes. And I thought to myself that in Nevada there’s a form of indifference at play. Indifference to time. And indifference to civic order. And what I mean by that last one is the way in which the casinos are fortresses that commingle with each other in awkward ways that seem symptomatic of a diminished government.

There is, between the River Palms and the Pioneer two casinos to the north, a “river walk.” The river walk is a paved path that runs just above the Colorado River and just under the casinos. It would seem like a nice place to walk the dogs, ride a bike, or generally stroll along a river that’s tantalizing for being bludgeoned while maintaining glimmers of beauty anyway—that translucent green color in the shallows that’s so unique to the Colorado; the sheer vigor of the current, a vigor that feels especially defiant given the view of the towering Davis Dam to the north; the tufty, dry way the natural foliage joins desert and water. Looking at the Colorado makes me think of the Nile, “The Highwayman” by The Highwaymen, and that view from the Vermillion Cliffs in Arizona of a flat desert horizon with a shadowed crevice cutting back and forth until the earth curves too much and the shadow drops off.

Harrah’s, the River Palms’ neighbor to the south, decided not to be part of the river walk. To the north, the walk stretches past the Golden Nugget to the Pioneer before ending without ceremony at the Colorado Belle, which is a boat that’s supposed to look like it’s in the water, an illusion that having a river walk would interfere with. (I just tried to look at Google Maps to see if the river walk picks up again after the Colorado Belle, but it isn’t on the map, a point that I think supports my idea about civic indifference—nobody’s reported this walk to the internet.) So the river walk’s short, and also, it’s clumsy. It switches back and forth, through gates, behind fencing, past the private beach that one of the casinos may’ve once made use of but now is neglected, through the interzones between the fortresses. It does not feel like a walk beside what should, by the normal logic of tourism and nature, be this region’s marquee attraction—the river. Instead, it feels like a walk down a back alley where none of the neighbors have coordinated their fencing and some have chain link and some have corrugated plastic.

To walk to the Harrah’s, since they opted out of the river walk, you have to go out to the street and take the sidewalk, where you will turn south. On your left will be the River Palms parking structure, on your right, across the street, will be a steep dirt hill. Then when the parking structure ends you’ll be in the Palms-Harrah’s interzone, which is a dirt bluff that juts out between the two casinos. You can walk out on the bluff pretty far and get a good view of the river. But this dirt bluff between the casinos feels completely ignored. Maybe that’s a desert thing. Undeveloped spaces in the east where there are trees don’t feel ignored, like the trees give that land some purpose. But this land feels problematic, a swatch of desert bluff plugged between two highly programmed fortresses, like a guy who’s clean shaven except for this one spot on his cheek. Like, it’s not a beard, and it’s not a goatee, but it’s definitely hair, and when you ask him why he it’s there, he shrugs and says facial hair is perfectly natural.

Standing on this bluff, I looked out at the Colorado and the jagged, red hills of Arizona beyond it, and I looked down at the Harrah’s plant, with its massive, churning AC units and twisting modes of entry.

 

 

Abstract of the section I cut that was here before, a section that supported the thoughts I was getting at in the previous section, the one about the river walk

Last night, prime rib. Hot tub lady’s recommendation. John gave me onion loaf. Hot personal-sized onion loaves with shitloads of butter are all you need; all restaurants here have them, everyone loves them. Had to use internet. Could not find connection. Drove all over. Called all over. Drove to Firehouse Coffee way deep in Bullhead. Found it closed. Stood in parking lot by the Big Lots. Looked at desert. Here’s where I quote myself: “The rivulets ran down the slopes, free to erode the hill at their own pace, without the interruption of parking lots and girders, dropping stones and sand into the rushing green water. That’s a characteristic of the desert—the way in which it looks like it’s melting in slow motion. In the desert I often feel as if I’m looking at the ocean floor, with mountains jagged on top and steep on one side but gently sloped and sandy looking on the other, the wind making them flat, bringing them back down home. Or the way in which, in the distance, desert haze looks like mist, like the peaks that rise out of it are islands coming up through the water.” No internet anywhere. Ask at Denny’s if customers there have complained about lack of internet. Waitress says no. Ask at front desk if customers there have complained. Guy says no. Digression about the way in which the Golden Nugget marks its property lines on the river walk with signs for the Starbucks. About to quote self again. “Both to the north and the south, when you take the river walk into the Nugget’s zone, you pass under what looks like a street lamp but that hangs a Starbucks emblem rather than a bulb.” Lady at bar eating lobster casino next to me thinks I’m insane for not having a River Palms Player’s Club card. She’s never met anyone who’s paid full price for lobster. Including me but only because I ordered something else. Player’s Club cards don’t cost anything. Quoting myself again here. “Walking into the Player’s Club and asking for a Player’s Club card would make me feel like a chump and an asshole.” Observation that my starving grad student friends don’t get the discount cards at Ralph’s and Von’s even though they don’t have any money; anti-card bias not pure economics. Conclude that internet is hard to come by in Laughlin, that casinos maybe have a motive for this but ultimately it’s the clientele who’s indifferent here. “The internet was hard to come by and nobody cared.”

 

 

4. The novelty of being here has worn off. Upon buying my two large coffees at the unbranded coffee shop (I pour one into the thermos I brought with me from LA and drink the other right then), I noticed that, had I picked up an Unbranded Coffee Shop Coffee Club Card on my first day, I would already be up to a free coffee, because here you only need to buy six coffees to get a free one rather than the traditional ten. That’s probably because nobody sticks around long enough to buy more than that. Because the novelty of being here has worn off, though, I’m going to talk about The Flamethrowers again pretty soon.

The novelty of being here has worn off. I walk through the casino without thinking about gambling, without looking at the people and pressuring myself to describe what they expose about America. (That Nevada is the peak of non-Southern American bustedness. That we fetishize this place for some of the same reasons we fetishize the South: for being the locus of our collective broken heart, even though here, we see on display a new kind of rot, one that has its origins not in our country’s historical scourge of slavery, but in the newer scourge of saturation in blinking lights and distraction that we’re aware of back home but that we most often treat as benign—“Ah God I hate Facebook,” we say two seconds before we check it—or that, if we don’t treat it as benign, makes us out to be sanctimonious if we swear it off—“I don’t watch TV”—or cranks if we get worked up—one time I got worked up about the vapidity of some TV show and my stepmother told me that I should spend more energy trying to get laid.)

So yes. The novelty has worn off. Yesterday, aside from getting those coffees, I stayed in my room until about one, left to eat something at the microbrewery in the Colorado Belle, came back and stayed in my room until about three, drove to Oatman, Arizona on the recommendation of an older couple I’d met in the hot tub, drove home, ate an “Asian salad” at the microbrewery at the Colorado Belle, and went to bed.

Although listing it that way makes me think yesterday packed more than I thought.

 

 

4.1 Notes on what I did yesterday

1. Oatman, Arizona depressed me far, far more than Laughlin has. Oatman is a god-awful terrible place. You get there by crossing the Colorado River into Arizona, driving past a few walled- or fenced-in subdivisions in the middle of what they call here the “Mohave” rather than California’s “Mojave,” and turning down a dirt road for twelve miles. The dirt road was exciting. Views of mountains, whether up close or far away, are better without the violation of black asphalt or gray concrete—the eye reads dirt as consistent with the landscape you’re seeing, and so you feel “in” that landscape more, and the mountains, now more personally connected to you, become more compelling.

Oatman proudly advertises that it’s a ghost town and that it has wild burros and buildings that look like the old west. I went in a restaurant that advertised Navajo tacos. I went into the bathroom and lining the hall on the way there were photos of kids with guns from the Oatman Tea Party. Oatman though is god awful because I’d gone there hoping to find a place that I’d want to snap photos of and tell my mom about without making her nervous. I had gone to Oatman hoping it would make me happy. I did not come to Laughlin thinking it would make me happy. But it was Oatman I hated for being a sham, the “wild” burros looking half-dead and hovering in front of the place that sells feed.

2. Before I leave this place, I will gamble some serious money (by my standards—a few hundred bucks. In The Flamethrowers Rachel Kushner says art takes risk and I hope she thinks this risk is a big enough one and recognizes that I was raised on extreme frugality). I’ve more or less forgotten about gambling in the last twenty-four hours. But I want the end of this piece to be about my experience with a chunk of cash at the roulette wheel. I want to do this because I don’t know if I’ll win or lose so I don’t know how this piece will end.

Also, tonight, I’m going to go to a show involving a guy and a white tiger. It’s up at Harrah’s. I may also try to sit by their pool for a while. The pool at the Palms remains less appealing, and also, prohibitively crowded. Yesterday I saw a man who appeared to be asleep with his shirt off but who managed to be smoking a cigarette anyway. Also I saw another man smoking a cigar with his shirt off while his incredibly tan wife yelled at him loudly, prompting some of the older ladies to raise their eyebrows. Also I discovered that it makes people uncomfortable if you sit in the hot tub alone without the jets on.

So those are the plans.

In the meantime, let’s check back in with The Flamethrowers. I’m going to go through the journal I kept while reading the book and reproduce a few lines or thoughts or quotes that seem worth sharing. But before that, there is one thought that’s stuck with me that keeps coming back to my mind. It’s: Rachel Kushner writes about the shared genetic code of art and revolt—revolt in the New York art scene, the political revolt of workers in Italy. What’s with that? Why does she place art and revolt side by side? This question keeps coming back to me because staying here in this fortress, in this city with no visible government, a few hundred yards but a twenty-minute walk to my neighbor to the south at Harrah’s, you can see that the casinos are indifferent to concealing the fact that they are trying to contain me. There is no denial about that, no telling me that this twenty-minute walk to cover a few hundred yards as the crow flies is for my own good. And with that comes… relief? Like this place is at least more honest than Oatman? Like there’s nothing to be suspicious of, nothing to be cynical about when the world’s cracked open so obviously?

I anticipate that when I show this piece to Sam Freilich for edits, he will ask me to clarify that last bit there.

[Sam: Can you insert yourself here? Can you speculate on what I’m getting at with the art/revolt shared genetic code thing?]

SAM FREILICH: The mixture of art and revolt feels less American and more European, at least I think—I haven’t read the book so I have only this essay to go on—given the way Kushner (or is it you, Tom?) seems to use the word “revolt,” which I think—again, lots of hesitation, but what can I do?—refers to actual bloody and violent revolution, i.e., revolt against the state, as opposed to the much more American existential kind of revolting, which is really just rebelling under a different name. The American version means revolting against abstract everyday concepts like “history” or “the status quo” or “your parents.” Just compare, for example, the American version of punk, which at heart was simply style, with the British version, which was more theoretical and political. In the New York art scene parts of the books, it seems revolt means, really, “appropriation,” taking a usually commodified item and replacing its meaning/connotations, whereas in Italy in the seventies, revolt meant actual revolt. It’s the difference between a motorcycle and a flamethrower.

ME: Thank you Sam for the help.

 

4.2 Notes from the journal I kept while reading The Flamethrowers

1. “… a person had to move to New York City first, to become an artist of the West.”

2. One thing that’s conspicuously absent from the journal I kept while reading The Flamethrowers: While driving here from LA, thinking about what I might write, I was completely convinced that there was some line in the book about it being difficult for Reno, having been in New York, to “just be” in the West anymore, to be where she’s from without also acting the part. But I don’t see any mention of a line like that in my notes, and I just spent a lot of time rereading the book. I think I was thinking of that line (or contriving that line) so that I could make it the premise of this piece, of this trip—that I can’t “just be” in Laughlin… In the essay built on that premise, I would’ve spent more time describing the haircut I got… But again, I see no mention of such a line… The closest thing I can find is when Reno is at the Bonneville Salt Flats and introduces herself as an artist rather than a racer.

3. Here’s the rest of the “Spiritual America” line: Reno describes a film she made about cars stopping at a traffic light under Reno the city’s archway. The guy Reno’s talking to says, in reply: “Spiritual America… That’s Thurman’s thing, too. Diner coffee. Unflushed toilets. Salesmen. Shopping carts. He’s about to become famous. He’s having a show at the Museum of Modern Art.” (YOU’RE INVITED TO SPECULATE FOR YOURSELF ON WHO IF ANYONE INSPIRED THURMAN AND IF YOU WANT TO RESEARCH YOU CAN START WITH THE PIECE ON THE FLAMETHROWERS IN THE PARIS REVIEW.)

4. Lonzi, of the pre-World War I biker gang in Milan, “said harebrained things about straightening the rivers of Europe…” Come to Los Angeles, Lonzi! We have those. Although now on LA’s most eastern outskirts you will see that they’ve given up on paving in and straightening out the rivers themselves—rather, they’ve left the dry desert washes intact, but they’ve built straight, paved-in drainage ditches to run alongside them. Is this better?

5. Sandro, Reno’s Italian lover, says: “America was supposed to be a place ruined and homogenized by highways, that that was its unique character, crass and vulgar sameness.”

6. At one point in my notes I wrote, “Why motorcycles?” In the book, motorcycles are part of the continuum that includes life as performance, work, workers, artists who dress like workers and make art that looks industrial, oil, gas, flames, machine parts, speed, leaving traces, traceless traces, art that is comprised of these very traces, being part of that art by being on the bike that leaves the traceless traces in the shifty salt flats. But is Rachel Kushner a biker herself? (YES. AT THE READING I LEARNED THAT SHE WAS A HARDCORE MOTORCYCLE RACER WHEN SHE WAS IN HER TWENTIES AND THAT SHE ACTUALLY DID ONCE CRASH AT A VERY HIGH SPEED THE WAY RENO DOES IN THE BOOK.)

7. In Telex from Cuba, the revolt has an innocence to it that gets broken with a gruesome execution and with the task of disposing of bodies. In The Flamethrowers, in New York, people get hurt, and people die. But the cinematic, possibly comic book-y quality to the revolt doesn’t ever break. A gang called The Motherfuckers piss in the snow and wear black t-shirts. One of their members Burdmoore directs a squadron of children like the conductor of a symphony. And then, on the streets of Rome, during the revolt there… what I associate with those scenes is color: red, black, gas, smoke.

I just got a distressing phone call.

I am an idiot for not being miserable here, alone in a sub-first floor room with a view of dirt, clacking away in my boxer shorts behind a Do Not Disturb sign, scribbling in my journal while waiting for meals alone, making occasional runs to the casino coffee shop for weak drip and bottled water. But what does that prove? Is it an accomplishment not to be miserable here? Or is it a shortcoming? People I don’t know too well, when they hear that I do this kind of thing, call it an accomplishment. People I know better call it a shortcoming. For me, it’s a mixed blessing. I’m happy when I’m writing, but I can’t write all the time and I’m unhappy when I stop, look up, and find myself alone. Being here has made it easier to not stop. I guess that’s the main thing.

I’m trying to remember the end of The Flamethrowers. Does Reno become a real artist? Or… Does it seem like Reno will become a real artist? It doesn’t matter. That’s not the point of the book. Her artist’s sensibility is more important than whatever work she does or doesn’t produce.

 

 

5. The End

I went to the Dirk Arthur White Tiger show. Dirk Arthur looks like Carson Daly but with a bigger head. I shared a booth with a family from Riverside that’d come all the way here for this show. The son went to UC Irvine. The mom taught ESL somewhere and the dad taught computer science at Pasadena City College. We chatted amiably. I’d say this conversation qualified as my first social-feeling conversation since coming here, my conversations with John the bartender being totally pleasant but nothing more than chitchat. When the lights dimmed the crowd oohed. Dirk had a bunch of exotic cats pop up in boxes. He led them around the stage by the chains around their necks, he showed a clip of himself on Animal Planet describing his cats as his colleagues, he smiled after every trick in a way that conveyed that you were supposed to know that his smile was fake, I’m wondering if David Foster Wallace said something exactly like that in “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” if he did I support his assessment, if not then I claim it as my own. At one point bright lights shone everywhere at the exact moment when I was yawning and I knew the family I shared the booth with could see me and I felt mean for not being happy. When the house lights came on after the show, I quickly sought refuge in my journal. I scribbled some thoughts. I did this because I wanted to remember a few things but also to avoid the eyes of the family in the booth whom I feared I’d offended by yawning right when the lights shone. We said goodbye with what seemed to me to be far less conviviality than we’d had before the show started. I went to the roulette table and lost one hundred dollars.

My budget for roulette was three hundred dollars. I picked three hundred because that’s how much being here cost me—I estimate that the same period of time spent back in East Hollywood would’ve cost me three hundred less than these days in Laughlin have. And that’s a loose estimate. But also, that number doesn’t really mean anything—if I lose it all, my trip cost doubles. If I win a little, my trip cost goes down. If I win a lot, maybe I leave here with some profit. If I double my money and quit, then I break even and it’s like this trip never happened. So starting with three hundred on this night isn’t too meaningful—starting with three hundred means any number of many possible outcomes. But that number does feel natural, or symmetrical, and I find some comfort in that symmetry.

At the roulette table, two guys smoked Swisher Sweets. One of them knew the very helpful trick of covering green zeros with a dollar per spin. This trick is helpful because if you play for a while, you’re going to hit that zero, and when you do, you will be furious, unless you’ve got it covered. Losing on green is more infuriating than losing in other ways. If you’ve bet on black, odds, and thirty-one and it hits red six, you will be bummed, but you will not feel cheated. But when it hits zero and you don’t have it covered, the roulette wheel feels criminal.

So I learned this trick, but I was losing fast anyway. I’d win once, lose twice, repeat. I was playing conservative roulette—betting some on black and some on a three-to-one outside bet and then maybe five bucks spread around on the inside, spread between the eleven numbers I bet on. It wasn’t working. After losing another hundred I left and walked to the River Palms. I hoped my home casino would be kind to me. But the place was empty. They didn’t even have a wheel running. I left and went to the Nugget.

At the Nugget, the dealer Sandra of Peru had no clientele. I had the wheel to myself. Sandra gave me advice. “You’ve got to give black a break,” she said. I thought this was sensible. A blond, tatted lady joined us at the end of the table. She would give a few chips to Sandra and specify which numbers she wanted Sandra to place them on—as in, “Let’s play four, six, and nine.” I couldn’t imagine myself doing the same thing, saying my superstitions out loud.

A few people watched us play because I started winning, and because I began to bet real money (by my standards, by the standards of this table)—seventy to a hundred per spin instead of twenty to thirty. The problem I had at Harrah’s wasn’t that I was playing too conservatively in terms of where I placed my bets. It’s that, because I wasn’t betting enough, I didn’t feel it when I won—my victories didn’t register. I didn’t notice them so I kept on charging and didn’t grasp where I was until I was about to lose.

At the Golden Nugget, I didn’t do that. I put fifty, seventy-five on black, twenty or so on a three-to-one, and then another five or ten inside for good measure. My pile fluctuated dramatically. But when I won, I felt it—I hit twenty-nine and thirty-five once each with those squares covered and black and odds covered too. I had decided that it was pointless to bet only ten bucks per spin if I knew I wouldn’t be happy unless I amassed a mountain of money. If you play ten bucks per spin, you will survive for a while, but you will need a hundred outliers in a row to amass a mountain. If you bet a lot, you need only a few outliers in a row, and then you need to stop. I paced myself. If I won, I took a few turns just to play the inside, to see what would happen. If I lost, I upped the ante. What I wanted though was to feel it. A victory big enough to register so that I could go home.

I’m now sitting in my truck in the parking lot outside the Golden Nugget. After I finished writing this morning I took a shower, packed, and came here to go to the Starbucks and bet everything I’d won the night before, a few hundred bucks. The guy asked me if I wanted a player’s card and I said no. I put my money on black and lost it all on one spin. Now, I knew it was time to leave. Loss packs less ambiguity than victory—had I won enough the night before? Did my victory register? That’s up for debate. But now, I was out. I was not happy to lose the money, but I was ready to go, and so, I quietly appreciated the clean break. And besides, roulette’s fun. It’s a good place to bear witness to our reckless determination to revolt against the laws of math, nature, urban planning, the free market, God, government, or whatever the hell you want to call it.

Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.