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  • In Nevada
  • Written by David Thomson
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780679777588
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In Nevada

The Land, the People, God, and Chance

Written by David ThomsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by David Thomson

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Nevada is the place where Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain, Frank Sinatra became Chairman of the Board, divorce became an industry and gambling an institution. It was a place that Kit Carson could explore, where Bugsy Seigel could dream, and Howard Hughes might hide. It's the government's favorite place to test nuclear bombs and store nuclear waste. It's a place, in short, of an impossible amalgam and improbable history.

From David Thomson, the highly-acclaimed author of Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, has beaten all the odds with a stunning book that pieces this great state  together in all its mind-boggling contradictions. In Nevada is a rich and fascinating work inescapably necessary for any student of the American West.


I'm not sure why I feel compelled to tell you this straightaway, for it was a plan I abandoned thoroughly long ago. Still, it did occur to me once to make my book about Nevada the journal narrative of some kind of investigator -- he was maybe a simple-enough researcher, a lone and altruistic inquirer after truth, equipped with his own eyes, his mind, and a fairly reliable vehicle. Then at other times, I had a notion that he was grant-aided and equipped with a camera, a sophisticated video camera, one that could even operate on its own, panning and zooming at random. So the researcher might sit nearby, sipping a cold beer while the camera observed, recorded, and took in the beautiful emptiness and the just as tranquil, patient uneventfulness of Nevada.

But then, somehow, he was to begin to believe that he was being followed, and that his investigation -- as it were -- was being tracked by others (readers? or one of those "theys" we dread?). Had his witless camera seen some stray gem or germ of a story, or minable intrigue, that his eye had never noticed? Had his inquiry stumbled on a secret? Or was the sense of secrecy just a measure of the odd loneliness, and its fever, that sets in as you drive through those places? After all, while some have said that, sooner or later, all the paranoids and conspiratorialists go to Nevada, others believe that it is the deep and ultimate vacancy of the place that stimulates storytelling. It is a great state for the kinds of belief that challenge reason, judicious observation, and the general reluctance to be carried away.

On the other hand, the sublime distances prompt thoughts of nothing more sweet or beguiling than being transported, carried off, of being in a state of traveling, as in a car at eighty miles per hour, or on a moving camera tracking over the speckled desert. These distances are all scientifically measurable: you can make notes from the odometer; you could, with surveying instruments, turn the haze and the vista into mathematics. You can work out the distances, the square mileage, the meager rainfall or even the specific density of Nevada. You could map it all, and tell yourself that every page or portion of the state was available as an inch-to-the-mile diagram, or whatever. But put the map beside a photograph -- more or less any photograph -- and you cannot really avoid the indicators that the distance, the space, is more than the numbers. It is a romance and an idea -- like "over there" or "once upon a time."

Well, it was the end of the decade, the end of the century. It was the millennium up ahead, and few could disown or deny the nervousness that was creeping in. On the great radio show that comes out of Nevada, Art Bell (a hero I pray not to meet, for distance is his enchantment) was talking of "the quickening." He meant by that the rash of extreme weathers affecting the Earth, and the mounting scale of "incidents" in and around Nevada -- the sighting of UFOs, or lights in the sky; the calm reports by ordinary people of how they had been taken away and examined by aliens; and so on. And the quickening was something that had the need of some great crisis ahead -- Y2K, 2000, the collapse of economies; the sudden draining away of hope and human nature; a month in which no casino jackpot paid off (or every one did, breaking the bank), the necessary reprisal of some god or other. You never know -- God save us, and let us never know.

And my thoughts -- my interest in the real history, and even my urge to make a book -- turned to Nevada. I wasn't quite sure why, and I used to enjoy being bland and helpless when people asked why. "I don't really know," I'd say. "It's this urge I feel." As if the whole thing were a love affair, or some kind of magnetic attraction. I began traveling in the state, driving, following the empty roads and the off-roads, stopping here and there. This developed over a period of years, and I picked up history and anecdote as I progressed. But the idea of a book set in when I realized how much I was moved by the desolation, and its stories, and how much I wanted to explain or explore that feeling.

So the book begins with journeys, or traveling -- for space here is history, time and again. The journeys are not "organized"; they do not follow on or link up; but the driver, the eye, and the wonderings are all the same. Of course, you might analyze the drives I report here, and see a pattern -- as if my car were really a UFO making certain mathematically aligned "passes." The alien looks at Nevada? Looking for a retirement place, like so many others? No, I am too young by far for that. And surely if I were an alien, I'd have been told. Wouldn't I?

Yes, that's right, I haven't really mentioned Las Vegas yet -- and some believe that Nevada is nothing but that unique international city, not just the fastest-growing metropolis in the United States but an abiding El Dorado, or Hell, for the rest of the world. Have no fear: We do get to Las Vegas eventually; we will play its games and run its stories. But Nevada is much more -- and was, for ages, before Vegas was ever thought of. And may be again. For the desert and desertedness are the true character of the state, and there is no proper getting to Vegas without crossing the desert first. That is how you can see its glow reflected in the sky, so that you wonder if it is burning already. And, as we shall see, in Nevada, there is burning for a moment, like a struck match, and being on fire for eternity.

All that is a way of saying that this book begins with travels in empty places and then moves south to consider Las Vegas and those other experimental places close to Vegas. So, be patient, for everything I describe has been here a long time already, and will see us off without stirring.
David Thomson

About David Thomson

David Thomson - In Nevada

Photo © Lucy Gray

David Thomson, author most recently of “Have You Seen . . . ?” is a regular contributor to The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times, Movieline, The New Republic, and Salon.  He lives in San Francisco. 

David Thomson is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com)


"Engaging." --The New York Times

"Fascinatingly researched, superbly written . . . a distinguished contribution to the literature of place." --Phillip Lopate

"He paints the desert, its solitude and shifting colors, as well as anyone ever has." --Business Week

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