Las Vegas has never been a particularly twee-friendly place — for one thing, it’s often just too hot to get around on a fixie — but now it’s home to the McSweeney’s-founded literary magazine The Believer, and this past weekend Dave Eggers, Carrie Brownstein, and Miranda July came for a festival called “American Dreams,” to celebrate the publication’s arrival at its newly adopted home.
The Believer, of course, was founded 14 years ago in San Francisco as an organ of the new sincerity. It was bought by and will now come out under the auspices of the Black Mountain Institute (named after the famous, now-defunct mid-century avant-garde college from North Carolina) at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It’ll be a magazine of poetry, art, stories about fighting HIV in Tijuana, and interviews with Agnes Varda in a town whose few publications seem largely preoccupied with nightclubs and speculation about the Raiders.
The Believer, a bimonthly with about 5,600 subscribers, was founded in 2003 by Vendela Vida, Ed Park, and Heidi Julavits; Vida recently said that it “by design, takes few ads” and has always been “breakeven at best,” which is why the deal to go under the wing of the Black Mountain Institute last month makes so much sense.
The festival’s headline event was a Saturday afternoon reading and talk with Brownstein, July, and Eggers at an outdoor venue ringed by a casino, a motel, and a parking garage. “It used to be that the only books associated with Las Vegas were ones like How to Win at Blackjack,” BMI executive director and new Believer editor-in-chief Joshua Wolf Shenk told the crowd before Brownstein and Eggers were introduced (by woman with Bettie bangs and guy with ponytail, respectively). Brownstein’s reading was a perfect fit for the town: a tale of going to a mall to see the star of her favorite soap opera, Days of Our Lives, and winning the lavender lace crop top worn by Cher in a workout video. (Brownstein no longer has said top, which is unfortunate because she could have just run over to Caesar’s Palace, where Cher is doing a residency, and return it in one internet-breaking awkward moment.)
There wasn’t enough shade: At one point, July looked down at her sandals and muttered, “I should have put sunblock on my feet.”
How different is Las Vegas from Portland, Oregon? Brownstein said, “I could do Portlandia here, but it would all have to be at that one coffee shop …” The crowd laughed, knowing exactly which coffee shop: the one with macadamia-nut lattes and artisanal locks on the handcrafted bathroom doors, across the street from the independent bookstore with the pet bunny and the bird-chirp soundtrack, down the block from the all-vinyl record store whose T-shirts bear the motto, “This town sucks.” (This is Vegas’s twee district.) However, Brownstein did grasp something about the essential nature of the city when she pointed out, “Las Vegas is a good place to cry alone in your car.”
Miranda July’s performance involved reading the anonymous sexual fantasies of women in the audience, which she had solicited via email a week before. The results were oddly dispiriting — one expects decadent kink from the women of Sin City, but most fantasies seemed to arise more from loneliness than lust. The audience remained silent, gazing at July rather than look around and risk locking eyes with the woman who masturbates because her husband is cheating on her. At the adjacent motel, a gentleman in a purple rayon shirt and old-school fade strolled out onto the balcony with a glass of wine and took in the show with an affable smile. However, he returned to his room when July began her second reading — a bestiality story rejected by Playboy.
A few hours later, everyone reassembled for an after-party at the Bunkhouse, an indoor-outdoor venue downtown. On a stage beneath a light-strung tree, Jim James of My Morning Jacket performed songs by Simon & Garfunkel and Woody Guthrie, shades on and blondish hair blown black like some ersatz, earnest Dude. Listeners lolled on picnic tables and the hulks of demobilized vintage pickup trucks; in one corner, an Airstream trailer peddled vintage clothes and ashtrays; across the way, a stand served up tacos.
Women flipped their bangs out of their eyes and discussed whether Dave had “talked over” Carrie too much, while guys with salt-and-pepper crew cuts clutched beers and got a little teary over James’s rendition of “Funny How Time Slips Away.”
Another after-party took place at the Jackie Gaughan suite at the El Cortez, which remains unchanged since the eponymous casino owner lived there. Gaughan’s decorating taste could be described as Liberace meets Scarface: mirrors and brass everywhere. Even the electrical outlets are upholstered, and the bathroom is completely done in pink marble, down to the ten-pound toilet seat, with every tap and handle a gilded swan.
There, a half-dozen people flopped on the eight-foot sofas, drank cans of Tecate and glasses of Riesling, and talked about future stories, future plans. The lights were dimmed, the furniture moved, Rihanna’s workworkwork came on, and Miranda July began dancing, sunburned foot notwithstanding. When Prince came on, even more joined in, as Dave Eggers goaded everyone into a Soul Train–style dance line — although this group didn’t so much drop it like it’s hot as put it down like it’s quite warm. The cool kids of Vegas may have enjoyed a night with the Brooklyn and San Francisco sensibility elites, but there are advantages to Vegas. After all, as Shenk pointed out, “Unlike Portland or Austin, you don’t have to keep Las Vegas weird.”