The Secret History of Las Vegas By Chris Abani. Penguin. 319 pp. $16.
In the years before his death in 2007, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard spent a lot of time dissecting the shallow absurdity of Las Vegas. His approach was a bit like “The Hangover” but with more academic jargon and less booze. The city, he wrote, represents a “stunning fusion of a radical lack of culture and natural beauty.”
Chris Abani would agree, but for him, even that “natural beauty” business is suspect. His clever thriller “The Secret History of Las Vegas” is set in a metropolis whose surrounding desert has been moonscaped by nuclear testing. More alarming, the shores of Lake Mead have recently become a dumping ground for dozens of dead homeless men. “It was, effectively, America’s, and increasingly the world’s, darkest and brightest subconscious,” he writes. What happens here, lingers and festers for decades here.
It’s a grim book, but one that contains the giddy, sour pleasures of the bleakest crime fiction, and the Nigerian-born Abani cannily makes his Sin City a signifier of the larger world’s degradations. The hero is Sunil, a South African psychological researcher for the Defense Department who has been working to find a drug that can stoke just the right amount of madness in soldiers to make them better fighters. (Those dead homeless men? Botched drug trials.)
Sunil, who is half-black and half-Indian, is tormented by the grotesqueries of his current job and his past one at a Pretoria prison where, in the 1980s, anti-apartheid activists were tortured and executed. Abani portrays Sunil as stuck on the wrong side of history while hoping to get on the right one, which is one way to get at the duality of man. Here’s another: The people suspected of murdering those homeless men are conjoined twins named Fire and Water; their deformation is a product of being downwind of the nuclear tests, which also sparked the leukemia that drove their mother to suicide.
Water speaks in simple factoids, a walking-talking version of a “did you know?” column in the weekly shopper. Fire, who “looks like a sea slug growing out of his brother’s side,” is a font of sarcasm directed at Sunil, who knows the brothers have nothing to do with the murders. The setup is less noirish than ghoulish: Sunil is an example of how even well-intentioned people wind up implicated in despicable acts, while the twins are living symbols of those acts’ consequences.
Even so, “The Secret History of Las Vegas” is brisk and funny in ways the genre demands. Abani’s previous novels — particularly “Graceland” (2004) — are gritty, meditative portraits of cities in England, Africa and America. This time around, he has studied up on crime-fiction mechanics without compromising his sense of moral outrage. He has mastered the punchy pacing, freak-show characters and gallows humor (One chapter opens: “Thirty apes shot in the head with a butcher’s bolt gun is not promising by any standards.”).
How Sunil gets to be the hero of this story is the novel’s most complicated tension. Even if we accept that Vegas and moral ambiguity go together like gin and vermouth, he’s an odd man to root for, his hands soaked with blood as they are. Abani hints at a sequel that may sort out this conflicted man more fully. Those loose ends make a few thinly drawn characters stand out all the more.
Yet “The Secret History of Las Vegas” brings an admirably global perspective to the crime novel. Every noir needs a victim of circumstance, but here the circumstances are the military-industrial complex and state-sponsored racism. The world can be horrid on a grand scale, Abani means to remind us, and we’re all at risk of being downwind of the worst that humanity has to offer.
Athitakis is a reviewer based in Phoenix.
By Chris Abani