In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance by David Thomson. Knopf, 330 pp. $27.50.
December 26, 1999        

Much of the American Southwest is awesomely beautiful, and all of it is at least tolerably scenic – except, arguably, Nevada. Some of Nevada is lovely, of course; it’s the 7th largest state, after all, nearly as big as New England and New York State combined. Lake Tahoe straddles one corner of Nevada, and Lake Mead another. There’s Great Basin National Park and the impressive redrock cliffs at Cathedral Gorge. But the rest of the state – 100,000 or so dry, brown, windy, corrugated square miles – strikes many people, even some desert aficionados, as a little bleak.

Actually, “many people” may be an exaggeration, since not many people go anywhere in Nevada except Las Vegas and Reno. But some of us among the horde of fun- or divorce-seekers, and perhaps even a few among the stay-at-homes, have wondered what stretches, so vast and empty, north of Lost Wages and east of the Biggest Little City in America. For us David Thomson’s “In Nevada,” a colorful, idiosyncratic ramble through the state’s history, politics, and landscape, is just the ticket.

Thomson, a British-born film critic and historian, is the author of “Beneath Mulholland” (1997), a stylish collection of essays on “Hollywood and its ghosts.” Nevada turns out to have some interesting ghosts, too. One of the first, the romantic, reckless, very lucky Colonel John Charles Fremont, stumbled down into northern Nevada from Oregon in 1843. Against all advice, he decided to cross the Sierras in winter. It was a mild winter, so he discovered Lake Tahoe and returned East in glory to write a best-selling account of the expedition. Three years later the Donner Party set out from virtually the same spot but encountered a less clement winter and famously perished. This, one might say, was how gambling began in Nevada.

Before gambling caught on, however, came the gold (and silver) rush. The Nevada Territory was a demographic black hole, an enormous badlands with only around 1000 inhabitants, when the Comstock Lode was discovered in 1859. Virginia City sprang up on the spot and within five years had 20,000 residents (many of them soon to become ghosts, owing to the absence of effective gun-control laws). Among these new Nevadans was Mark Twain, brother of the territorial secretary, who delighted in the wild-‘n-wooliness, which he eventually wrote up in “Roughing It.” Most of Nevada’s other new mining towns, though no less wild than Virginia City, were less rich. As many failed as flourished – another species of ghost.

Virginia City itself survives only as a tourist attraction, a satellite of Lake Tahoe. Understandably, Thomson circles back frequently to the subject of Tahoe. Quoting Twain, the WPA Guidebook, and others, he’s convincing about its original jewel-like beauty; and he affectionately evokes the golden lakeside summers of the mid-century San Francisco upper crust. No doubt democratic, developed late-20th-century Tahoe, with its million visitors a year, algae blooms, and 750 gallons a day of Jet Ski fuel dumped into the crystal water, was inevitable and is perhaps even in some ultimate ethical sense more desirable than Tahoe as elite playground. Still it is sad, he muses, that “no one will ever again see the place Fremont saw.”

On the other side of humanity’s ledger is Hoover Dam, about which Thomson waxes lyrical: “a lustrous, beautiful shape, so massive, yet so curved, speak[ing] of bulk and voluptuousness.” Thomson knows the ecological objections to dams, and the horrors of this one’s construction.
Nevertheless, “Hoover Dam is one of the great, bold, simple, and lovely human assertions – it says, We can think of this, do it and make it, and some will die in the doing, but we will alter the dynamics of nature and make it serve us. And even if it all comes tumbling down eventually, because the raw, innate upheaval of land cannot be quelled, or because our games with explosives go too far, still, anyone who sees Hoover Dam will know and remember that men gave wildness and nature a terrific game, and won the game with grace and ingenuity.”

Away from the state’s watery corners, what does Thomson find? Much strangeness. The Burning Man Festival, for example, a kind of postmodern desert Woodstock in northwestern Nevada. A new land-speed record (764 mph), clocked in the Black Rock Desert, which has replaced Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats as the proving ground of choice for racing cars. Area 51, a secret government site where the aliens who landed at Roswell, New Mexico, are now housed, according to local residents. State Highway 375, just northeast of Area 51, is officially designated “The Extra-Terrestrial Highway.” US 50, a hundred miles north, is officially designated “The Loneliest Road in America.” Most ominous is the Nevada Test Site, 1350 closely guarded square miles on which atmospheric and underground nuclear tests were once conducted and where hair-raising quantities of radioactive waste are now stored. Thomson takes a government-organized tour of the Test Site, lacing his account of it with piquant observations and disturbing information.

Of course any portrait of Nevada must come to terms with Las Vegas. This is where the most glamorous ghosts are – Bugsy Siegel, Howard Hughes, Frank Sinatra – as well as other supernatural apparitions, like the Luxor and the Bellagio. Thomson has interesting things to say about all these familiar subjects: how the mellower, more emotionally secure Dean Martin could often chill out the unappeasably neurotic Sinatra, for example; or the fact that Steve Wynn’s hotel-casino, the Mirage, employs more people than all of Nevada’s agriculture. There are unfamiliar ghosts, too: in particular, an intriguing sketch of the marvellous tenor saxophone player Wardell Gray, who died “in mysterious circumstances” (i.e., was dumped in the desert) in 1955, aged 34.

A topic like Nevada is an invitation to portentousness, and Thomson sometimes succumbs. But in his better moments he arrives at some truths, or semi-truths, about this peculiar place: “What I hear in Wardell Gray is something I find in life and human nature – and something as bright as the sun in Nevada: It is the inescapable adjacency of beauty and horror, even to the point that we might not understand, or see, one without the other.”