That one of the first acts of the territorial government was to construct a prison reveals much about the early American inhabitants of Nevada. Originally composed mainly of restless prospectors, explorers, and outlaws, the populace resented the efforts of federal authorities to impose uniform law and order, as well as statehood, on a region it deemed its own. Though the feds ultimately won out, the sentiment stuck, and Nevada continues to operate by its own set of cultural and political standards. This compromise, explains David Thomson, makes the state essential to the rest of the nation:
Nevada is on the edge, on the wire, off to one side, in the empty quarter, or even in the rest of the country's head as an idea, a possibility, an alternative. It is an experiment, or a kind of theater.... for America has used Nevada as a testing ground, and not just for weapons and their destructiveness but also for new social ideas, and their explosiveness. What happens if you allow divorce, prostitution, gambling? Can there be community and purpose if you encourage things deep in human nature yet supposedly alien to order and togetherness? Don't we need to find out?
Much of the union's most rapidly growing state remains a mystery. Area 51, for instance, just 50 miles northwest of the Las Vegas neon, is a chunk of desert larger than Connecticut, forbidden to anyone without official government clearance. Such desolation defines much of the state, whether or not off-limits. Indeed, "it is the deep and ultimate vacancy of the place that stimulates storytelling," says Thomson, and to prove his point, he covers topics as varied as the Burning Man Festival, Frank Sinatra, pugilism, conspiracy theories, alleged UFO storage facilities, nuclear waste, and gambling, to name precious few.
Thomson's meandering style is well suited to the subject. Moving easily from the floor of a frenetic casino to the loneliest stretch of highway, his compelling stories and observations convey "the power of Nevada as a place and as an idea." The result is an absorbing and amusing tour rife with surprises. "I hope I may leave you wanting to go there, to be there, to see and feel it for yourself," he writes. In Nevada undoubtedly succeeds. --Shawn Carkonen
From Publishers Weekly
It may come as a shock to learn that there's more to Nevada than Reno and Las Vegas. As Thomson's compulsive meanderings through the Sagebrush State make clear, there's a whole other Nevada out thereAeven if it's mostly just empty space. Not unlike the dense historiography of John McPhee, this impressionistic series of sketches gives readers the feeling of having a well-informed sidekick riding shotgun through sage-strewn stretches of Highway 376. Thomson augments his observations with judicious bits of local history, showing how the desolate region has paradoxically become the most rapidly growing state in the union. Drawing gamblers, real estate barons and UFO enthusiasts by the busload, Nevada boasts a long history of rough-edged prospector types looking to strike it rich. A concurrent tradition of off-handed violence has lingered ever since the newborn Nevada Territory built a prison as one of its first official acts. Thomson (Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles) clearly has an appetite for the gritty stage machinery behind the glossy showmanship. Thumbnail sketches abound of Steve Wynn, Frank Sinatra and lesser-known impresarios, alongside historical riffs on such places as Reno, the self-proclaimed "Biggest Little City in the World." To the crowded gaming tables and the stark mountains that surround them, Thomson brings an appealingly philosophical frame of mind, an ability to throw sophisticated musingsAabout transience, history, placeAout into the landscape as if waiting to see if they will take root. Photos. (Oct.)
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