Magazine article The Spectator

Bucking the Odds

Magazine article The Spectator

Bucking the Odds

Article excerpt

Bucking the odds David Spanier IN NEVADA by David Thomson Little, Brown, 20, pp. 330

Nevada is on the edge, on the wire, off to one side of America. Yet its influence on the whole country has been profound. It still is, in unimagined ways, not just in gambling. David Thomson is an Englishborn film critic and historian, and a very good one. In In Nevada he lets his camera zoom over the length and breadth of this state, revelling in its desert wildness and empty beauty and musing on the deeper meanings it offers for life and death.

As if pitching for your money to make an art film, Thomson conjures up a myriad stories. Some of his stuff is over-written, but his extended riff on Sinatra - allowing his music to 'just issue forth like long narrative lines, telegraph lines in the desert' - is worth the price of admission alone. Thomson has an original take on Nevada. He has chosen to juxtapose the almighty, unstoppable rise of Las Vegas with the terrible and terrifying fall-out of nuclear testing. It is this contrast which gives the book its impact - a movie script, if you like, depicting the biggest gamble of all.

The central metaphor of the book is very daring. I am not sure I am convinced of its truth, but it is certainly suggestive. It is that the rise of gambling in Las Vegas, with its release of energy, its social experimentation as in quick divorce, open prostitution, day In' night indulgence, has in some inevitable way a parallel on the downside, in the testing of nuclear weapons in Nevada. He takes the simple image of the 'downwinders', those people who found themselves living in the path of the prevailing wind. Tough. Unlucky. Had to be someone. And yet look at the sheer necessity of testing. In this sort of reckoning, the explosion of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which cost 140,000 lives in each city, was a good bet (excuse the crudity) measured against a potential loss of three million in a protracted Pacific war.

The Nevada test site received its authorisation from President Truman the year after the first Soviet atomic bomb test. In the years following 1950, 100 atmospheric tests have been conducted there and over 700 underground. Safe? Who on earth knows? It is 5,000 years since the first dynasty in ancient Egypt. Yet there are radioisotopes that remain dangerous for, say, 250,000 years. Where should we put this vibrant matter while we are waiting? it is not as if we can go back one step and wish it away. …

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