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Look beyond The Strip: Las Vegas has reinvented itself as a literary destination

A literary pilgrimage here? No way. Too many books set in Vegas. Too grim. Too predictable.

But once I had drawn up my list of destinations, I was pleased to see David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion and other literary heavies taking me to landmarks throughout the city.

Circus Circus is the best place to begin a walking tour. Immortalized in Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” the casino retains its weirder-than-expected aura even without mind-altering substances.

Thompson’s crazed merry-go-round bar no longer serves alcohol, but you can still ride the two-story carousel while circus acts perform overhead. Patrons eating ice cream rotate on the top level while gamblers playing slots spin around one story below.

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Literary Vegas

Visitors walk past the merry-go-round made famous in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." 

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Next I headed across the street to the Peppermill Restaurant, where Dave Hickey, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, held court at its Fireside Lounge debating art, culture and Las Vegas with every comer. Few spots have the Peppermill’s satisfying vintage appeal, which is why the author of “Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy” favored the plush conversation pit illuminated by “floating” fire and neon halos of light.

A more sobering landmark is tucked away next to the Encore Las Vegas resort. Featured in Richard Rodriguez’s “Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography,” the Guardian Angel Cathedral, designed by L.A. architect Paul Revere Williams is a midcentury A-frame of sacred splendor. Within its quiet, soaring volume, Rodriguez found comfort in the face of a friend’s death.

Literary Vegas

The Guardian Angel Cathedral, designed by Los Angeles architect Paul Revere Williams, stands along the Vegas Strip.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

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The farther south I headed on Las Vegas Boulevard, the more literary landmarks I found: the B&B Ristorante, in the Venetian, where Donna Tartt slyly set a victory meal in “The Goldfinch”; Caesars Palace, where Harmony, the fading showgirl in Larry McMurtry’s “Desert Rose,” sought distraction; Caesars Forum Ballroom, where Wallace probed the porn industry in “Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays.”

The Flamingo casino is a jackpot for settings, including Tim Powers’ novel of the supernatural, “Last Call,” and “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!,” the nonfiction work by and about renowned scientist Richard Feynman. And who could forget 007 having a busy stay at the Tropicana in Ian Fleming’s “Diamonds Are Forever”?

I hopped in a cab for the short ride to the charming Little Church of the West. Discussed in Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” the 1942 redwood church is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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A few miles east on Flamingo Road is the National Atomic Testing Museum, which played a meta-role in Chris Abani’s “The Secret History of Las Vegas.” And in Vu Tran’s “Dragonfish,” the 14-acre fishing pond at Sunset Park is the site of a deal brokered between a cop and the Vietnamese mob. It’s worth the trek just to gawk at a very strange Easter Island head.

Michael Ondaatje’s “Divisadero,” Charles Bock’s “Beautiful Children” and John Gregory Dunne’s “Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season” took me downtown, where the characters hang in bars and ply the streets. On the site of the original city post office (now the Mob Museum), I considered Truman Capote explaining in “In Cold Blood” how the murderers were caught: They mailed their blood-soaked clothes care of general delivery, and the police watched them claim the box.

It seemed a good place to stop, except that Laura McBride’s “We Are Called to Rise” beckoned me to Sunrise Mountain. For that, I needed a car.

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Why Las Vegas is such a hot literary destination for writers -- and readers

This city has arrived as a destination for bibliophiles, with the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute key to its growing literary reputation. Housed at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Black Mountain sponsors fellowships, readings and panels with writers as diverse as Stephen Greenblatt, Toni Morrison and George Saunders. A recent $30-million Rogers Foundation pledge has made Black Mountain one of the best-funded literary organizations in the country.

The annual Vegas Valley Book Festival also is a big draw; more than 10,000 guests descend on the Historic Fifth Street School in downtown Las Vegas for readings, panels and book signings.

This fall it featured speakers Brad Meltzer and Colum McCann, with performances and panels dedicated to romance, crime, mystery, politics, poetry, children’s and young adult literature. Plans are underway for an expanded October 2016 edition.

The surge in the city’s literary programming is recent but its roots run deep. The earliest writing from Las Vegas includes reports from John C. Frémont’s expeditions and Helen J. Stewart’s day book. Stewart ran the original one-stop ranch resort where visitors could lodge, bathe, eat and post Pony Express mail. Documents pertaining to Las Vegas history are on display at the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas.

Today’s writers meet at bookstores, coffee shops and cafés around Las Vegas to discuss their work, sign books and give readings.

John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion’s late husband and the subject of “A Year of Magical Thinking,” found the city a source of inspiration and community. “I had arrived in Vegas an emotional paraplegic, obsessed by death,” Dunne wrote, “and there I found a kind of peace.”

Not all writers find solace in Las Vegas. But you may just glimpse the main character of your next novel in a coffee shop. Or at least someone interesting to tweet about.

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If you go

THE BEST WAY TO LAS VEGAS

From LAX, American, Southwest, United and Virgin America offer nonstop service to Las Vegas, and Virgin America, American and Delta offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $115, including taxes and fees.

WHERE TO STAY

El Cortez Cabana Suites, 600 E. Fremont St.; (702) 385-5200, www.lat.ms/1LsP4Un. Boutique hotel with 64 rooms in the heart of the downtown renewal project. Rooms from $27.

Oasis at Gold Spike, 217 Las Vegas Blvd.; (702) 768-9823, www.oasisatgoldspike.com. One-of-a-kind hipster “crashpads” in a boutique setting. Pet-friendly. Rooms from $59.

Element Las Vegas Summerlin, 10555 Discovery Drive; (702) 589-2000, www.elementlasvegassummerlin.com. Stylish, eco-friendly studios and suites about 15 miles from the Strip. Complimentary breakfast/evening reception. Rooms from about $130.

WHERE TO SIT AND READ

PublicUs, 1126 Fremont St.; (702) 331-5500, www.publicuslv.com. Sip a latté or sample the vegan arugula risotto. The open floor plan and big windows make it a popular place to relax or work. Pet-friendly. Open Mondays-Saturdays 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sundays 7 a.m.-8 p.m.

Beat Coffeehouse & Records, 520 Fremont St.; (702) 385-2328, www.thebeatlv.com. More hippie than hipster, with lots of free reading material and a vinyl collection for listening. 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays.

Makers & Finders Coffee, 1120 S. Main St.; (702) 586-8255, https://makerslv.com/#/. A comfortable place to think, talk and work.

7 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

Sambalatte Torrefazione Boca Park, 750 S. Rampart Blvd., Summerlin, Nev.; (702) 272-2333. 7 a.m.- 8 p.m. Sundays-Tuesdays; 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Cozy coffee- and teahouse with an impressive selection of beverages and pastries.

TO LEARN MORE

Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute, 4505 S. Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas; (702) 895-5542, www.blackmountaininstitute.org/about-us/. Literary center offering high-end programming.

travel@latimes.com


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