The Dark Season

John Gregory Dunne’s Vegas is an epic of displacement.

john gregory dunne
Steve Carroll

In the middle of a dark season, I flew to Las Vegas to participate in a book festival. It was a Saturday in late October, and I was on the 7 a.m. flight out of LAX. The plane was full of Philadelphia Eagles fans, en route to see their team play the Raiders at the arena a Las Vegas writer of my acquaintance has taken to calling the Boondoggle Dome. The actual name is Allegiant Stadium: I saw it, looking like an enormous Kodak Instamatic Flashcube after all the bulbs had burned out, as my taxi pressed north on I-15. Across the freeway stood the Mandalay Bay, where four years earlier, in the autumn of 2017, the deadliest mass shooting in United States history had occurred. At the beginning of 2017, I’d spent four months in Las Vegas on a fellowship, and this was the freeway exit I had used. Tropicana east to Maryland, then a few blocks north to the subdivision where I’d rented a small unit in a triplex on Elizabeth Avenue, around the corner from the Crown & Anchor British Pub. I remembered watching coverage of the shooting from my home in Los Angeles and feeling something not unlike proximity. How many times had I been right there? All the same, I understood that this was just a story I was telling, that I was no closer to the tragedy than anyone else. I hadn’t been present, and if I knew the ground, the territory, so did every tourist who had ever visited the Strip. The Mandalay was gold with smoked glass; it had a saltwater aquarium and a pool with a wave machine. Were I looking for a metaphor, this might add up to one, although if Las Vegas had taught me anything, it was that metaphor could never be enough.

When I use the phrase “dark season,” I’m borrowing from John Gregory Dunne, who employed it in the subtitle of his 1974 book, Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season, which has long been out of print. Prior to Vegas, Dunne had been a journalist at Time and a freelance columnist and screenwriter. He had published two books: Delano (1967), an account of Cesar Chavez and the California grape strike, and The Studio (1969), for which 20th Century Fox had given him a year of unrestricted access, to its eventual chagrin. Each involved its own sort of immersion, which was also the case with Vegas, albeit on somewhat different terms.

For Delano, Dunne, assisted by his wife, Joan Didion, did extensive on-the-ground reporting. (The book grew out of a piece he had written for the Saturday Evening Post.) With The Studio, he functioned as with a heightened fly-on-the-wall point of view. It’s a strategy we associate with New Journalism, although that’s something of a misnomer for what Dunne was doing. Perhaps more so than Didion, who distrusted narrative as much as she recognized its necessity, Dunne was a storyteller; just look at his novels True Confessions (1977), Dutch Shea, Jr. (1982), and The Red White and Blue (1987). Vegas, however, refuses to be so straightforward. Here more than in any of his other books—including Harp (1989), which comes billed as a set of “autobiographical examinations”—Dunne turns the lens inward, not on the facts of his existence so much as on the feeling, his sense of distance and disentanglement.

“My wife says I am clinically detached,” he writes early in the book.

This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

My wife would not say the same, but in a lot of other ways the experiences—the displacement—Dunne evokes in Vegas remained resonant for me. “In the summer of my nervous breakdown,” he begins, “I went to live in Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada. It had been a bad spring, it had been a bad winter, it had been a bad year.” I read those lines a few weeks before leaving for the book festival, in an Airbnb just north of Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, around the corner from a house my wife and I had once tried to buy. We were there because we’d been forced out of our home by a burst pipe and a flooded bathroom. It had been a bad year for me as well: Not only the bathroom but also issues with my parents, who were aging and needed more help than I knew how to give. My daughter had graduated from college and moved across the country. The coronavirus kept mutating, and we had returned to some strange state of semi-lockdown, riding out the Delta surge. We left our house so quickly, my wife and I—just for a few days, we believed…until the bathroom was stripped to the studs—that we did not recognize the severity of what was happening. Then the days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months.

The opening lines of Vegas echo something Didion had written a couple of years earlier, in her essay “In the Islands”: “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific,” she reports from the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, “in lieu of filing for divorce.” The resonance, I imagine, is not unintentional. Vegas, after all, tells the story of another marital disruption, during which Dunne decamped to a dumpy apartment complex called the Royal Polynesian, on Desert Inn Road. Royal Hawaiian, Royal Polynesian…it’s a nifty bit of doubling, although there the similarities end. I’ve been to the Royal Hawaiian, wandered its long and stately corridors, watched the sun set over the ocean at the beachfront bar while drinking Kona Longboard Island Lagers. I have also been if not to the Royal Polynesian then to many places like it—“in each unit,” Dunne reports, “there was a black-and-white television set, a hot plate, a plastic dinner service for two and two peanut butter jars reincarnated as water glasses.” The uniformity, and the transience, remind me of the now-shuttered Red Roof Inn about a mile from the Strip where I once spent the night, or even my old place on Elizabeth Avenue. They’re all similarly rootless, similarly anonymous.

That, of course, is the idea; Dunne was in Las Vegas not to be found but to get lost. “The question,” he observes, “was where to go to find that perfect place where one could look for salvation without commitment. And then one day I was driving on La Brea Avenue in Hollywood and saw a new billboard high atop the office of a credit dentist. On a brown field there was a picture of an enormous roulette wheel and a gold-lettered legend that said simply, with a Delphic absence of apostrophe: visit las vegas before your numbers up.”

Dunne is trafficking in cliché here: Las Vegas as illusion, or escape. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, a slogan I have long resisted, both for how it reduces the city to a catchphrase and because nothing ever remains so contained. “That was the year,” Didion suggests in “Goodbye to All That,” her 1967 essay about leaving New York, “…when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.” This is one of the essential tensions of Vegas also, despite—or possibly because of—the fact that the book is, or may be, broadly fictionalized. “What you have read,” Dunne acknowledges on the final page, “is a myelogram of six months of my life. I can offer no guarantee that everything you read actually happened, only that insofar as it was perceived by my fractured sensors it was true.”

What is Vegas, then, if not an autofiction? What is it if not a self-constructed myth? What is it if not (to frame it in more contemporaneous terms) a fictional memoir in the vein of Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, an impressionistic narrative unbound by the journalistic strictures, new or otherwise, of Delano or The Studio? The same could be said of all art or literature, which we create out of the questions we can’t settle, the conflicts we can’t resolve.

vegas, a memoir of a dark season, john gregory dunne
Random House

I was interested in Vegas for all these reasons. I was interested because it was a lost book. To get a copy, I’d had to order from a used bookseller in England. It had cost me 90 bucks. The volume, paperback with a dust jacket, smelled like ancient wood pulp. The edges of its pages were stained and brown. The cover featured an image of a slot machine, bars aligned to reveal a woman, nude. It was an artifact from another time. During the flight, I kept the book flat in my lap, to hide that picture. I hid my face behind an N95. I kept thinking about those elements—the cover, the mask—as emblematic, two very different sides of a coin. Once, the louche aspect of the photo might have played as daring, transgressive even, a swipe at puritan pieties. Now, it was the opposite: a tawdry reminder of retrogressive attitudes. Someday, the mask I wore might appear similarly outmoded, although I couldn’t imagine ever flying unmasked again. Together, they were points on a line from past to present, with the future, as always, a question mark. That was what this fall, this dark season, had reaffirmed, beginning with our displacement, the necessity of leaving home for first one Airbnb and then another, no end to our expulsion in sight. There was nothing you could count on, nothing that couldn’t dissipate in some unanticipated way. Seventeen years, my wife and I had lived in our place. We’d raised our children there. Now, time and location had unraveled. We couldn’t say when we’d return.

Flying to Las Vegas felt similarly fraught, surrounded, at seven in the morning, by football fans already half in the bag. Behind my mask, I kept my distance. I kept my distance in the airport, too. As I moved through the terminal to the cab line, I could hear the bells and chirrups of the slot machines. I recalled another flight, during the months of my fellowship, from this airport to Austin, getting up at four in the morning in the high desert darkness for a six o’clock departure. That morning, too, the slots had kept ringing. People were drinking as they played. Had they been up all night? Anything to keep the party going. Anything to keep the fantasy intact. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Airport as casino, difficult to find a clock or a window, a microcosm of the city’s most prevailing clichés.

The book festival, it should go without saying, was not a prevailing cliché of the city. For me, that was part of the appeal. It took place at the Historic Fifth Street School, a Depression-era mission revival compound that had been redeveloped as an arts complex. I’d attended in 2019, driving in from Los Angeles. That had been my plan this time as well, until my disenchantment led me to rethink. I didn’t want to spend four hours in the car each way. I didn’t want to have to stay overnight. I wanted to get in and out, nice and clean, like a scalpel or a thief in the night. This would be my first in-person event in a year and a half, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be here, although I was trying to prove something to myself. Amid the disruption and the instability, I felt…what?…the need to find a way back to routine. Our home was a construction site. Either my wife or I drove over every morning, to let in workers and pick up mail. The bathroom remained undone. The landlord had taken the opportunity to do other upgrades to the building: bolting the structure to the foundation, revamping the heat and the electrical. Three weeks earlier, while tented for termites, our house had been burglarized. The perpetrators had stolen a set of silver flatware bequeathed to my wife by her grandmother and a watch that had belonged to my father-in-law; they’d left a pair of sneakers and two partially consumed cans of Diet Coke. In her 1990 story “Health,” Joy Williams imagines a family coming home after a fumigation to discover a burglar lying dead in their living room. It is no exaggeration when I tell you that I regret we didn’t come upon the same.

What’s that I was saying about a thief in the night?

john gregory dunne
Steve Carroll

Three weeks later, my anger still felt like whiplash. It kept me awake. I was angry at the burglars and the extermination company. I was angry because no one had known to pay extra for security. “It’s probably an inside job,” the investigating officer told me, writing his report at the dining room table, mask below his nose. A lot of tented houses, he went on, were burgled; it was something of a cottage industry. I handed him the sneakers and the soda cans as evidence, but we never heard from the police again.

At the festival, I sat at a table in the outdoor author reception area, sipping a cup of coffee. A dozen or so feet away, a family of musicians rehearsed. Two men who looked like brothers played jarana and requinto; a drummer kept the beat. The singer and one of the siblings were partners, I soon realized. An abuela looked after their two daughters, a toddler and a slightly older girl in a pink dress and a flowered headpiece. As I watched, the band worked through a number, while the kids darted back and forth. At one point, the singer picked up her younger child and danced with her as she sang. The players repeated a figure, and then again, practicing a rhythmic break. I preferred this to the polish of performance, music starting and stopping, shifting tempo, the missed notes, the collaboration on the fly. The singer had on green pants, and after a bit, she spoke up: “Showtime. We gotta go.” She lifted the toddler again, and the group moved out into the plaza, leaving me alone. Their seriousness, their spirit on a Saturday morning in Las Vegas, stood in contrast to the airport. Together, the scenes added up to something more defining than either one alone. It was Dave Hickey’s democratic demotic: “As Americans,” he had written nearly 30 years earlier in The Invisible Dragon, “we are citizens of a large, secular, commercial democracy; we are relentlessly borne forth on the flux of historical change, routinely flung laterally by the exigencies of dreams and commerce.… As such, we are social creatures charged with inventing the conditions of our own sociability out of the fragile resource of our private pleasures and secret desires.” A collage culture, in other words, which was what Las Vegas represented. A city barely a century old, built on the residue of a collective dreamscape. I had often wondered, during the four months I had spent here, what an archaeologist or an extraterrestrial visitor 10,000 years in the future would make of the postmodern mash-up of the city, the scaled-down Tour Eiffel and Empire State Building, the gondolas in the ersatz Venetian canals.

Hickey was a signature voice of Las Vegas; I was at this festival to discuss his work. But Dunne had observed a similar dynamic. “The side of the road out there,” he writes, describing an excursion to the end of West Sahara Boulevard, “…resembled the trail of an army in full retreat. Carcasses of cars, refrigerators, propane heaters, furniture with the stuffing ripped out.… Tires, old radios, television sets with no picture tubes, stoves, washing machines, bicycles, ironing boards, supermarket carts, air-conditioning units. Why here?… I could not find an answer, but today, years later, that stretch of highway out on the edge of the desert seems a more vivid image of Vegas than the lights of the Strip that even then were struggling against the summer twilight.” Do I need to say I felt the same about the glitz and glitter? Do I need to say I felt the same about the Strip? Over the course of my fellowship, I had visited it only twice—both times for dinner with friends from out of town.

For Dunne, what he discovers along the fringes of the city represents the detritus of a disposable society. The gleaming surfaces obscure more than they reveal. To his credit, the author understands that; he builds much of Vegas around a trio of characters: a stand-up named Jackie Kasey, who once went on tour with Elvis; Artha, a prostitute taking classes at a local beauty college; and the private investigator Buster Mano, who runs surveillance on missing husbands, an irony of which the author is not unaware. The intention is to portray these individuals as representative. And yet, this gets complicated because none of the three existed in real life. What does it mean, then? I think again of Dunne’s assessment of his book as a myelogram, literature as Rorschach test, in which the facts may or may not have anything to do with the truth.

What is truth anyway, especially in a city such as Las Vegas? It’s a question that occupies the center of the book.

In places, Dunne’s explorations can veer into male posturing, licentiousness as liberation or something like that. He spends too much time on the dynamics of sex, or at least its possibilities; he introduces Artha with a paragraph-long list of statistics: “She had turned 1,203 tricks with 1,076 johns,” it begins. The specificity of the numbers (and, later, of the acts) reveals their artifice. Contrast that with what I think of as the book’s “truest” sequence, even though it emerges from similarly conditional terrain. Late in the narrative, Jackie tries to set Dunne up with a younger woman. The narrator remains, as he has throughout, ambivalent. Seeking clarity—or perhaps permission—he calls his wife in Los Angeles.

“It’s research,” she reassures him. “It’s a type, the girl who’s always available to fuck the comic’s friend. You’re missing the story if you don’t meet her.”

When Dunne responds that he doesn’t want to meet her, “there was a long silence at the other end of the telephone. ‘Well, that can be part of the story, too,’ she said.”

His wife is right, although this is part of her persona: cool, dispassionate. At the same time, the passage functions as a kind of parody. Dunne makes that explicit in the way he sets it up. “She said that she was lonely and depressed,” he tells us. “The septic tank had overflowed. There was a crash pad next door and one of the couples had taken to boffing on the grass in clear view of our daughter’s bedroom window. The wind was blowing and there were fires at Point Dume. The maid had quit, the fire insurance had been canceled and the engine in the Corvette had seized on the Ventura Freeway.” The Corvette, of course, is the one from those Julian Wasser photos of Didion. The rest of the passage reads like a pastiche of her essays, not least “Los Angeles Notebook”: “The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air.” There’s an intimacy to Dunne’s portrayal, or at least I want to think that’s what it is.

There’s also a lot of rage.

john gregory dunne
Steve Carroll

Considering it now, I have to wonder: Is this why Vegas has been out of print for nearly 50 years?

“Time took on a kind of pattern,” Dunne writes of Las Vegas. “For days on end I did not leave the apartment.” I know exactly what he means. The months I’d spent in the city were another season of displacement, during which I often felt nothing so much as lost. I drove back and forth from Nevada to Los Angeles. When I was in one place, it was as if the other had ceased to exist. I wrote and read and walked for miles along empty sidewalks dusted white with alkali. I explored, as Dunne had, the edges where the boulevards blurred into the surrounding desert, where Las Vegas dissolved into where it was going, what it was. One weekend, I went to Red Rock Canyon. Another, I hiked Sloan Canyon, where hundreds of petroglyphs dot rock faces, messages inscribed in a language no one can any longer understand. That this will happen to us is inevitable; languages, like people, die. One day, these words will be petroglyphs, if they survive that long; the archaeologist or the extraterrestrial may gaze at this sentence without realizing it’s addressed to them.

One day, in other words, everything I’m writing—not unlike Dunne’s book—will effectively disappear.

And yet, if that is the weight, perhaps it is the counterweight as well. At Red Rock Canyon, I climbed a rising trail before a cliff face, marveling at the color of the stone. The name Las Vegas means “the meadows”; it describes the oasis that first drew travelers to stop here, on the way from California to Salt Lake. These canyons are the only landscapes here from which the Strip is invisible. Then you leave or turn a corner, and it reappears. Both weekends, after I had finished hiking, I found myself at one of Las Vegas’s ubiquitous shopping centers, eating lunch in a chain restaurant: sandwich and a cup of coffee, maybe a beer. Afterward, I went back to my little apartment near the university, made plans for the evening: sushi at a place in Chinatown where I went so frequently that the chef had come to know me. But that had been another decade, another lifetime. He wouldn’t know me anymore.

After my festival panel was over, I set off on another kind of walk, first from the Fifth Street School north to Fremont Street, then east to Maryland, past the Container Park, with its enormous mechanical praying mantis, and Atomic Liquors, where I had once liked to drink. In part, I was tracking landmarks. In part, I was killing time. My flight back to Los Angeles wasn’t until late afternoon, and there was nowhere I had to be. From Fremont, I doubled back to Las Vegas Boulevard and undertook a long and meandering arc south. This was the Strip, although not yet; here, north of the Stratosphere and the unfinished Fontainebleau—a 68-story casino that had still not opened nearly 15 years after breaking ground—I saw gun shops and wedding chapels and sex stores and cannabis dispensaries. In the distance, the surreal projections of the Bellagio, the Aria, the Cosmopolitan, and Caesars Palace shone weakly beneath the raw brightness of the sky. “The summer heat burned into the cortex of the brain,” Dunne writes. “It was something tangible, hallucinogenic, dipping under a hundred degrees only after midnight, so hot outside that a heat headache seemed a permanent, terminal condition.” Summer had long since ended, but the effect was much the same. It felt like I was walking my way out of Las Vegas. Or walking Las Vegas out of me. On the Strip, the sidewalks filled with revelers and street hawkers and tourists, women dressed as showgirls posing for photographs, and always, always, Eagles fans in town for the game. No one was masked, but that was not my issue. I felt invisible behind my N95. Even in the middle of the action, I was on the outside. Like Dunne, I understood, as I always had, that this was not my place.

Eventually, I made it to the taxi line at the MGM Grand, not far from my old neighborhood. I could see the planes take off in the near distance, next to the Luxor pyramid. At the airport, I waited for my flight to be called, reading Vegas. On the terminal sound system, Sheryl Crow’s “Leaving Las Vegas” played on what felt like repeat. It had been the last song I’d heard driving out of the city after my fellowship. Dunne, too, had left Las Vegas. He had lived and written and remained in his marriage for three decades before he died, in 2003, at 71, sitting at the dinner table with his wife.

I suppose that’s as good a way to go as any other, although I don’t think like that. Between death and life, it’s not a question. Or maybe survival is a better word. “I can only say it was a bad season and then it was over,” Dunne writes. And: “It has been two years now since I last was in Las Vegas, and the things I remember about it have nothing to do with why I went, and less with why I left.”

My own bad season continued through November, December, and into January. My son’s best friend was killed in a hit-and-run in Texas. My wife broke her elbow and needed surgery. For a time, it felt as if the universe were aligned against us, but that, too, I understood, was mere projection, another failed metaphor. The universe is not capricious; it is indifferent. It does not care about our fate. All we could do was wait it out, live through this, until, as Dunne had, we found a passage home. •

David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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