Lady Luck Is No Art Lover

Article excerpt

IN ONE SENSE, THE AUTHOR NICHOlas Pileggi was a lot like the crooks he writes about. He went to Las Vegas for business, not for pleasure, and he went home with more than he brought with him. Pileggi traveled to Vegas looking for a story. Having described the life of a soldier in the mob's army in the superb Wiseguy," he decided to profile the life of a top dog. So six years ago, he went to Vegas, the city in the desert that "was built by the mob." He ignored the gamblers. "I was interested in telling a story about the people who ran Las Vegas," he says. "About the workings of the city. Sort of `Oh, and incidentally they gamble out here'." He steeped himself in the city's history. He studied the nuts and bolts of running casinos and became conversant with the methodology of the skim, that process whereby crooked casino employees parse gambling proceeds before they render unto Caesar. The result of his labors is "Casino" (363 pages. Simon & Schuster $24), as savvy a book as you will read about the way the mob ran Vegas until the Feds ran the crooks out of town in the early '80s.

Mythical siren: Pileggi was much luckier than most of the writers who have preceded him. He nailed a period in Las Vegas history without once falling prey to the common temptation to write the definitive book about the city. So, while "Casino" is a merely excellent book when judged by the usual literary standards, by the standards that apply to books about Vegas it's a masterpiece.

No other city, no subject, is quite so uncongenial to artistic interpretation. Visual artists take a pass on the place and the better musicians just stop long enough to play the gig and pocket a check before heading on down the highway. For writers and moviemakers, the city operates like some mythical siren, luring otherwise sensible authors onto the rocks of first-person pomposities and seducing moviemakers into forgetting where their talents lie. The good writing about Vegas occupies a very short shelf. There is John Gregory Dunne's "Vegas," Michael Herr and Guy Peellaert's "The Big Room," Larry McMurtry's "The Desert Rose" and a few essays by Tom Wolfe, A. J. Liebling and Joan Didion. More precisely, nearly all the good writing about the place can be contained in 358 pages, the length of the handy new anthology "Literary Las Vegas."

The shelf of good movies on the subject is no shelf at all. Bits and pieces of some very good films ("The Godfather," "Lost in America,"..."Get Shorty") take place in Vegas, but for every good movie set there ("Honeymoon in Vegas"), there's a fistful of stinkers ("One From the Heart," "The Only Game in Town" Amazing Colossal Man"). Despite this jinx, Las Vegas keeps luring them. Every A-list director, from Francis Ford Coppola to Martin Scorsese, seems compelled to take his crack. This fall no fewer than three movies use Vegas as their setting, including Scorsese's forthcoming "Casino," his much anticipated film version of Pileggi's book. Of the two movies that have opened already, "Showgirls" is like an old Elvis movie without Elvis, and "Leaving Las Vegas" is so unremittingly bleak that you wonder why anyone would go there, even to drink himself to death, which is all the protagonist has in mind.

If Vegas is a tough town for artists, they can certainly respond in kind. In fact, they sound like disenchanted lovers. Before he went there to make "Leaving Las Vegas," Mike Figgis says," I thought there'd be an electricity in the air, a kind of glamour--albeit tough -- a cool, sexy kind of glamour. …