The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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  • Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson , et al (rated 5/5)

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Paradise, Nevada
Paradise, Nevada
by Dario Diofebi

Hardcover (6 Apr 2021), 512 pages.
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
ISBN-13: 9781635576207

From an exhilarating new literary voice--the story of four transplants braving the explosive political tensions behind the deceptive, spectacular, endlessly self-reinventing city of Las Vegas.

On Friday, May 1st, 2015 a bomb detonates in the infamous Positano Luxury Resort and Casino, a mammoth hotel (and exact replica of the Amalfi coast) on the Las Vegas Strip.

Six months prior, a crop of strivers converge on the desert city, attempting to make a home amidst the dizzying lights: Ray, a mathematically-minded high stakes professional poker player; Mary Ann, a clinically depressed cocktail waitress; Tom, a tourist from the working class suburbs of Rome, Italy; and Lindsay, a Mormon journalist for the Las Vegas Sun who dreams of a literary career. By chance and by design, they find themselves caught up in backroom schemes for personal and political power, and are thrown into the deep end of an even bigger fight for the soul of the paradoxical town.

A furiously rowdy and ricocheting saga about poker, happiness, class, and selflessness, Paradise, Nevada is a panoramic tour of America in miniature, a vertiginously beautiful systems novel where the bloody battles of neo-liberalism, immigration, labor, and family rage underneath Las Vegas' beguiling and strangely benevolent light. This exuberant debut marks the beginning of a significant career.

Paradise, Nevada

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, Ray had arrived in Marin County at night. Having spent the cab ride home looking at his phone to discourage the driver from talking to him, and having had to wrestle his father for control of the heavier, more wobbly-wheeled bag on the way inside (so that "Seriously dad, let me do it" had been his first words to him), he'd had no time to gradually reacquaint himself with his childhood town, neighborhood, and house. At the periphery of his vision, familiar shapes gave in quietly to the sameness of the night. But as soon as he was inside, the yellow glow of the low-energy light bulbs on the cherrywood bookshelves awakened him to his obvious mistake: he was home.

It took Ray a few days to readjust to the place where his precocious talents had been first noticed and nurtured. In the quiet jazz suffusing the rooms he knew so well, he could still hear the whispered expectations for his future his parents had gone to extreme pedagogical lengths to hide. It was in the living room, where they had insisted on throwing him house-parties and, worse yet, surprise parties with the other, non-mathematically-gifted children. It was in the kitchen, where he had been recruited in all manners of commis activities by his French cuisine enthusiast mother ever since he had been tall enough to reach the countertop, drawing him away from his desk and his calculus. It was in his parents' bedroom, where secret pillow-talk about Ray's limitless potential must have taken place for years. The secrecy, Ray knew, was some hippyish hokum meant to alleviate the pressure and allow him to organically develop his dispositions. But behind the smiles and the encouragements to "go out and have some fun," Ray never doubted for a second the narrative his parents had always wanted from him. For him.

At the root of his problems with the house was a familiar and much more tangible contrast: the Jacksons' was a house of Letters. It was, in fact, in response to this axiom, transparent and irrefutable for anybody who traversed their labyrinthically bookshelved corridors, that young Ray had derived his own clear-cut identity as a man of Numbers. In the late 80s, only a few years before his birth, Howard and Victoria Jackson had opened the Satis House Bookshop in San Rafael, a so- called little independent hideaway for the literarily inclined. Throughout Ray's childhood, the bookstore had been the object of his parents' endless profusions of love and endeavors, and had hosted readings by some of the most celebrated writers of the time. Ray himself, cute and well-behaved, had soon been a welcome guest at both the readings and the post-reading dinners with this or that novelist, which accounted for the wealth of unnecessary synonyms and flowery phrases that still clogged his mental storage centers. And now that he was back, and corridors were once again something you traversed, and cutting a potato was called batonnet-ing or allumette-ing (two different things), and decisions were made because of how they felt, regardless of their optimality, Ray found himself utterly incapable of the very rational thinking that the future of his poker career demanded.

The days leading up to Thanksgiving became an elaborate game of domestic chess. Ray's king, who only wanted to castle short and mind his own business in a corner, was assailed by opposing forces coming from both flanks. His father, a short, thin, gray-haired man whose face had developed the puffiness of old age and whose eyes had narrowed to small horizontal slits, haunted both floors of the house like a slow-moving, legally blind ghost. He had a way of walking into whatever room Ray was in, hands joined against his lower back, like a Parisian flaneur (his words), that always managed to drive Ray up the cherrywood-paneled wall: he had no reason to come in and made no attempt to hide the fact, he just walked in and sort of loitered. It would have been quite better, honestly, if his father had started chopping wood right there in the room—something Ray pointed out with the disgruntled "WHAT?" that opened most of their conversations throughout the two weeks.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Paradise, Nevada by Dario Diofebi. Copyright © 2021 by Dario Diofebi. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

A colorful, kaleidoscopic work of fiction placed in the world of the Las Vegas gaming industry that explores the lives of those who stay behind when the tourists go home.

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In Dario Diofebi's novel Paradise, Nevada, the neon allure of Las Vegas is pulled back to reveal workers, strivers, gamblers and bit-part characters populating the famous strip. Each of his protagonists has come to the city in search of a fresh start — a new life, a new career — but for many, it proves to be more like limbo, a topsy-turvy world where the ordinary rules no longer apply. Through the fictional Positano, a luxury casino resort designed to be an exact replica of Italy's Amalfi coast (including sea and cliffs), Diofebi presents a vivisection of casino life, exploring all the people who are still there when the tourists go home.

As you would expect, this makes for an interesting and diverse set of characters. There's Ray, the internet-famous online poker wizard, whose obsession with the value of logic over feelings makes him certain he will dominate the live-action "feel players" of the Positano's high-stakes tables. Mary Ann is a former model trying to convince herself that her newfound job as a "bevertainer" is one she should feel lucky to have. Tommaso is an Italian tourist whose lucky streak at the small-stakes tables changes the course of his life forever. And Lindsay is a Mormon journalist who dreams of a career greater than her suburban beat. Their lives interweave, with Positano at the center, until they coalesce around a disaster that is foreshadowed early on.

Professional gambling is a fascinating niche, and Diofebi, an ex-professional poker player, provides the reader with insider knowledge. His descriptions of the high-stakes games are full of excitement and suspense. He also writes with real compassion about the lives of the frequently unappreciated waitresses and dancers — often young, attractive women whose careers are dependent on their looks and who are treated as expendable once they reach a certain age. In part, Paradise, Nevada is a novel about workers' rights, and about the struggle for fair treatment against a house that seemingly always wins.

Though there is much to enjoy about the novel, it feels just a little too long. The ending is sufficiently dramatic, but the middle drags somewhat, and many of the interludes that pepper the story seem like distractions that add little depth. Diofebi seems to be emulating writers such as David Foster Wallace, whose complex fictional worlds include the perspectives of even the most minor characters (Diofebi also uses footnotes, and even phrasing similar to Wallace's at times). Unfortunately, this similarity invites comparison — one that sees Diofebi coming up short. Though the work is certainly ambitious, he doesn't seem to quite have the stamina to keep in touch with so many characters and still draw us on towards the (admittedly exciting) conclusion. However, the breadth of the novel does give him ample room to explore many interesting themes and subcultures — from gentrification to Mormonism to the alt-right.

Las Vegas, with all its absurdity, debauched glamour, opportunism and hucksterism, is prime real estate for the setting of a novel. It promises, if nothing else, to be damn entertaining. Paradise, Nevada makes good on this promise, offering up the perverse magic of this strange city while never letting you forget that it's all just one big show.

Reviewed by Grace Graham-Taylor

Publishers Weekly
[A] sprawling, eloquent debut...With intelligence and empathy, Diofebi delivers a powerful and unapologetic slice of Americana.

This is a heady read, filled with surprising turns of phrase and unexpected relationships...Readers of complex literary fiction will appreciate the sharp and nuanced writing.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A great American novel set in the city of busted dreams...This sprawling, delightful debut book captures the artificial worlds within [Las Vegas]...This is a tremendously funny book, but it earns its laughs through human frailty...An intimate epic set in a virtual but deeply human world.

Author Blurb Susan Choi, National Book Award-Winning author of Trust Exercise
Paradise, Nevada won't just compel with its high-stakes momentum, it'll teach you to win high-stakes poker! Dario Diofebi is an irreverent and audacious new voice.

Author Blurb David Lipsky, author of Absolutely American and Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself
Dario Diofebi is a wonder-a brilliant comic voice telling a thrilling compassionate story. People have talked about the complete winning package, the full boat that's aces over kings, and that's Diofebi: piercingly funny about modern life, compassionately human about his characters. Diofebi's written the ultimate poker novel, the ultimate casino story-but there's also the voice, one you know is going to be around for a long time, with the thrill of catching it on day one, on the ground floor.

Author Blurb Darin Strauss, National Book Critics Circle Award-Winning author of Half a Life
This is a book made of neon and late nights and that glass of scotch that appears just when you want it. It's been years since I read anything nearly as fun. Vegas has been right there forever, waiting for a great novelist, and Dario Diofebi has come dealing nothing but aces.

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A History of the Vegas Showgirl

Women in showgirl costumes Dario Diofebi's novel Paradise, Nevada takes a look into the world of the Las Vegas working woman, including the iconic Vegas showgirl. The last traditional showgirl extravaganza, "Jubilee," was shut down in 2016 after a 34-year run, pushed out by competition from other entertainments catering to more modern and family-friendly tastes. While showgirls still work in some capacities in Vegas, the final performance of "Jubilee" was the last of a breed of major professional shows that already felt consigned to the past — a bygone era of Hollywood glamour, post-war optimism and strict gender norms. Yet the showgirl's image remains as an archetype of femininity, a gem-studded fantasy.

The Vegas showgirl's origins lie not in Nevada but New York, where Florenz Ziegfeld offered audiences his take on Parisian cabarets, such as Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergère, with the Ziegfeld Follies, a highly successful series of "revues" (theatrical productions) that began in 1907 and ran on Broadway until 1931. A consummate showman, Ziegfeld created spectacles consisting of gorgeous, scantily-clad young women that cheekily referenced cultural or topical events. By emphasizing the show's European origins, he leant an air of sophistication to these titillating performances, drawing in the urbane and affluent crowd. The focus of the shows was always on beauty and suggestibility rather than talent or outright sex — Ziegfeld's girls dressed in fine furs and jewels, and were required to do little onstage other than walk or sit. Though the job seems easy compared to what was expected of showgirls later on, some found it restrictive. Paulette Goddard, a Ziegfeld girl who later became a celebrated Hollywood actress, said of her experience, "girls were far more frivolous then because…nothing was expected of them. I could tap [dance] but I was never given the chance."

During the 1950s, when Las Vegas was booming, showgirls emigrated to the casino. Their performances began as playful bookends for the headlining act but soon became integral to the casinos' modus operandi: to keep customers gambling by keeping them inside. Headdresses got higher, crystals more numerous and performances more demanding — at one show at the Sands casino in 1952, the total cost of the showgirls' attire was more than the salary of the headlining act. These were the glory days of the showgirl, when she sashayed amongst the rich and famous — the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Cary Grant. Competition between the casinos resulted in the first topless and nude showgirl performances, beginning with the Lido de Paris troupe in 1958. Initially the law stated that a girl could only appear nude if she stood completely still, but this requirement was soon relaxed, and various degrees of nudity became an accepted part of showgirls' routines.

By the 1980s, showgirls were expected to be highly trained professional dancers, with many coming from the worlds of ballet or classical dance. Performing complicated choreography in heavy costumes required a level of fitness on par with professional athletes — except, unlike athletes, they had to look glamorous. Height restrictions also became de rigueur, reinforcing the showgirl's image as a glorious Amazonian creature (with the minimum height falling around 5'8", and many girls 5'10" and up).

The end of the showgirl industry came with the corporatization of Las Vegas and the increasing availability of more explicit forms of adult entertainment in the city. During the 1990s and the turn of the century, many Vegas casino owners began to distance themselves from the "sin city" image, moving towards a more family-oriented vision. Corporate interests began to shift to entertainments that could be money-earners themselves, rather than bait to lure in gamblers. This led to a preference for musicals, high-concept performances full of special effects and the popular Cirque du Soleil over showgirl performances. Also, as the sexual conservatism of the mid-20th century fell away, the subtle, sensuous sexuality of the showgirl appeared tame in comparison to what was on offer elsewhere. Too risqué for the family crowd but not risqué enough for the adults, showgirls had lost their audience. Though they were seen as living legends, the absence of a target market saw dedicated showgirl productions gradually fade away.

Like many expressions of femininity, the Vegas showgirl walked the thin line between high glamour and self-objectification, sexual liberation and catering to the male gaze. This tension was part of her mystique; she wielded her carefully crafted desirability like a weapon, remaining unattainable and in control. In many ways, she was a product of the sexual conservatism of her day, which makes mourning her loss somewhat complicated. However, it's undeniably true that Vegas seems to sparkle a little less without her.

The silent video below features showgirls performing at the Hotel Tropicana in 1965.

Women in showgirl costumes, via Pixabay

Filed under Music and the Arts

By Grace Graham-Taylor

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