It’s exhilarating to come upon a writer whose moves and positions one can’t anticipate. Writing of Las Vegas in his latest book, Richard Rodriguez dilates a little on Noël Coward’s stay in the Nevada desert (the British playwright found the gangsters there “urbane and charming”); he tells us about the Spanish teenager who in 1829 was perhaps the first European traveler to lay eyes on the valley and gave it its current name (which means “the Meadows”). He circles for a while, as many writers might, around Ozymandias and discovers an eighty-four-foot-long Maya Lin sculpture in the lobby of the Aria Hotel. True to his generally melancholy and paradoxical cast of mind, he notes that Vegas is a city that lives off the sorrows of others, less a vindication of the American belief that everyone can become a millionaire than a monumental reminder that the majority of gamblers are failures.
Yet before any of that, he begins his chapter by writing of a gay friend who’s dying in a hospice in the desert outside Las Vegas. And even as he keeps reflecting on his suite at the Bellagio, he also keeps returning to his visits to his friend. The alert reader begins to register how often hospital wards haunt his book; Rodriguez, now seventy, is clearly thinking in his fourth book about what any of us leave behind. And when he discloses that his friend dies, as it happens, on Easter Sunday—the bumper sticker on a van in front of the author’s car says (in Spanish), “ONLY GOD KNOWS IF YOU WILL RETURN”—you may remember that the chapter before this one (which is called “The True Cross”) was entitled “Jerusalem and the Desert.”
Bringing disparate worlds together—seeing Las Vegas in the light of Jerusalem, Jerusalem in the light of Las Vegas, so as to catch each at an unexpected angle—is part of what makes Rodriguez an original. At every turn, he mixes registers, frames of allusion, references to his Mexican family with references to the privileged cosmopolitan circles his writing has admitted him to. As a lonely student in London, he tells us here, his copies of Milton sat next to those of the British society magazine Harpers & Queen.
An anti-ideologue of sorts, he writes to keep everything in play—he has a clear, droll fascination with the tinsel of the streets, even as he cherishes his Catholic remove from the world—and to keep the reader questioning everything, most especially our too simple ideas about America and identity. His tone is that of the mournful outsider at the feast—Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, say—who heads off alone for his contemplations while happy lovers pair off and go to the nuptial feast.
This contrarian bent was announced in his very first book, Hunger of Memory (1982), in which the Mexican-American scholarship boy argued…
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