IN NEVADA

The Land, the People, God, and Chance

By David Thomson

Knopf. 330 pp. $27.50

There's something for everyone in the great state of Nevada. Families come to romp in the Technicolor wonderland of Las Vegas. Hippies and Silicon Valley malcontents head north of Reno for the barren desert and bizarre ritual of the Burning Man festival. The government drops bombs in desolate valleys, and true believers spy alien ships in the skies. A mob lawyer is elected mayor of Las Vegas, while the government hopes to dump nuclear waste just 100 miles north of the city.

The noted film critic David Thomson tries to wrap his mind around this strange place in his new book, In Nevada. He can't seem to decide if Nevada is a region or a metaphor: Is it merely the large, empty state between California and Utah, or is it a symbol of all that is compulsive and alluring about America and the West? Is it a place where normal people are born in hospitals, shop at the Gap and die of natural causes, or is it a Bermuda Triangle for morality and compunction -- where both vanish once the state line is crossed? Thomson admits that, despite his affection for Nevada, he's "not sure the nature of the state is really a network of vital places so much as an intermittently and briefly interrupted nullity."

Thomson travels from the empty northwest corner of Nevada to garish Las Vegas in search of this elusive state, or state of mind. The odd, evocative book that results -- not quite a history, not really a travelogue -- chronicles his musings on Nevada, from the mineral prospecting so crucial to its 19th-century past to nuclear testing, from Frank Sinatra crooning at the Sands casino to the mobsters that made Vegas. He brings a cinematic sensibility to his quest, always on the look out for gangsters, the Rat Pack and the next best vista.

What he finds is that America needs Nevada. This has been true, he writes, ever since Lincoln forced it into statehood in order to co-opt the area's voters and its precious silver. Nevada is the country's testing ground. It's the place to find out whether you can make a community out of nothing but sagebrush and mines, the place to test impossibly fast planes and weapons of mass destruction, and the place to try out libertine social ideas. "What happens if you allow divorce, prostitution, gambling?" asks Thomson. "Can there be community and purpose if you encourage things deep in human nature yet supposedly alien to order and togetherness? Don't we need to find out?" America looked to Nevada and found that divorce and gambling aren't so bad, if there's money to be made. (The country has yet to be convinced of the benefits of legalized prostitution.)

Nevada's desolate spaces make it ripe for experimentation. Few people are around to snoop into moral, or military, matters. Thomson compares the state's size with his native Great Britain: Britain, with close to 60 million people, occupies 88,745 square miles: Nevada, shy of a mere 1.5 million, extends to 110,540 square miles. "Time and again in Nevada, you feel the human thing has hardly got a hold," he writes.

It's an eerie truth that Nevada's "failed cities outnumber those that are still going concerns." They boomed when the veins of ore in nearby mines coursed with mineral wealth and busted when they ran dry. And now some of its remote valleys, where those towns used to be, are so toxic with nuclear radioactivity that protective clothing must be worn by the very few people who venture in. For the military has certainly experimented with Nevada, at the nuclear test site in central Nevada, at the U.S. Naval Air Station with its bombing run, Bravo 20, to the north, and, of course, at the mysterious Area 51. Thomson tours the nuclear test site -- now labeled an "Environmental Research Park" and open to the public under restricted access -- and discovers what he believes is one of the most beautifully made objects around: the perfectly symmetrical Sedan crater, the product of an underground nuclear test. He bemoans the destructive force that created Sedan and yet, with post-Cold War pragmatism, concedes that "it's not too remote an argument to say . . . that the bombs, the testing, and the dogged strafing of Bravo 20 helped bring something like liberty (with all its scars, excesses, and errors) to Prague, to Budapest, to Warsaw, and even to Saint Petersburg."

The test site, like "the other great Nevadan theme park" to the south, Las Vegas, is a peculiar version of hell: toxic with moments of beauty, pleasure closely allied to danger. It's the Nevada version of hell, or maybe heaven, where a drive through the desert is stirringly beautiful, but you'd better make sure that your gas tank is full and that you are carrying enough water because you are the only one out there, the next gas station isn't for at least 100 miles, and what little water you find is likely to be poisoned with alkali.

Thomson does eloquent justice to these contradictions -- and insists on their place in the national psyche. "In far more ways than gaming could ever express, Nevada is the providential testing place for our recklessness," he writes. "So we should study the volatile mixture of its danger and beauty, then wonder which we deserve."

Rachel Hartigan, the assistant managing editor of Teacher magazine, is a native of Nevada.