Paradise is a real town, at least touching real, on the outskirts of Las Vegas and toward the end of the Strip -- that billion-dollar fantasy street where electric blue skyscrapers merge with metallic magenta spires reaching high into a desert sky toward a heaven of a less reachable kind.

It is the land of Caesar's Palace and the MGM Grand; of doormen in togas and bar girls in much, much less; of security guards with shocking pink fingernails, zebra-striped in white, and Cotl .45s strapped to undulating hips crammed into black leotards a size too small.

The sensory shock of 20-story-high casino neon plays off against shabby little signs offering E-Z weddings, all checks accepted. Marriages for $20, minister and organ music included, flowers and license extra.More fleeting solutions to a part of the mating bliss cost 10 times as much, value systems have a looking-glass quality in Paradise.

It is a place where anything can be bought, as long as you have the folding green. Paradise is what most people think of when they think of Las Vegas. It is a little municipality created for the supper casinos in some now obscure mix of Bugsy Siegel Poliiecs and suitcases full of mobster money by people with their own view of the American Dream.

To seek substance here is to find meaning in a 25-foot plaster statue of a naked Roman soldier or in tassels that twirl in opposite directions on the same set of mammary glands. It means something, but the answer requires deep thought.

Still, this is part of America, too -- a place where Americans come to escape, where they come to have their frazzled nerve endings sandblasted instead of massaged. The blinding neon and clattering slots are electroshock therapy for some, though others need the Valium of waving palms, so they head for an island instead.

You can wander the neon jungle for days without hearing a word about the hostages or the Russians or Jimmy Carter. Carter doesn't exist here, because election bets are illegal even if the law is bent on the street, and the sixth race at Monmouth or the next turn of a bacarat card offers far more instant gratification than waiting until Nov. 4.

Ask a blackjack dealer what he thinks about the state of the world or the performance of Jimmy Carter and he looks at you as if you are a little old lady who tried to bet a dollar at a $5 table.

Pressed further, for whatever it's worth in this land of make believe, the president does poorly in a straw poll. He scores well only because he is toughening up on the Russians, and Las Vegans like the idea of letting the whole thing ride on one card. But Ronald Reagan does better because he leaves the impression he might make the moxie move without looking at his hole card -- in the dark, they call it here. And Reagan, after all, was produced by a fantasyland not dissimilar from this one.

But Vega is used to adapting. When the govenment stated above-ground nuclear testing 75 miles north of here in the 1950s, they figured even casino extravaganzas couldn't top that as a tourist attraction. So penthouse restaurants set up ground-zero breadfasts for the early morning explosions, complete with fireball cocktails and mushroom omelets.

Psychologists have a field day in paradise. They are called in to design casino layouts, and they create palaces with everything but clocks. If the outside world is banished from Paradise, so is time. The doors never close, dice rustle across the felt at 5 a.m. as surely as at 5 p.m.

In 1963, the outside world invaded briefly when a president was shot. The wheels stopped turning for 60 full seconds, and then someone yelled, "coming out!" to which the reply was "craps." More than a decade went by, and then Howard Hughes got his 60 seconds, too, with a touch more reverence because his reality was greater here.

In this casinos, you glance up from a blackjack table at a ceiling of one-way mirrors where soneone is staring back unseen, a reminder that 1980 is just one presidential election away from 1984.

At the tables, if anything more serious than hitting 15 ever comes up, it's the state of the economy. The prevailing view is that the odds are better here than outside. The house take on blackjack is about 5 percent, whereas outside Paradise there's a double-digit drag on life these days.

The double-digit drag may be spread over a year's inflation, while the take in paradise arrives every 30 seconds. But this is one of those realities that penertrates only when you move back through the desert barrier to the other world.

The psychologists have always figured Vegas wa recesssion-proof, operating on the old Wild West theory of human nature that the contented will stay put but the despserate will cross deserts to seek fortunes. And an unemployment check is considered better fodder for escapism than a weekly pay folder that goes on forever.

The theory is breaking down this summer. Vegas is suffering too, and the denizens of this fantasy land are blaming Carter, gasoline prices and Atlantic City, not always in that order.

Californians are spurning the place. A 300-mile drive with $25 real money gasoline intimidates them in a way that a $5 funny money minimum never would at a green table. Easterners are making the shorter run to the place where Monopoly money first got its name.

And Vegas is changing, too, in a way that some psychologists like to play off against the American Dream, the American Way -- even American history, Manifest Destiny and the nature of the people that spread westward first across the Atlantic and then across continent.

Las Vegas was the dream child of the mob, and they took over this town in the 40s the way gun-toting outlaws did a century earlier in towns from Dodge City west. Howard Hughes came next, like Jim Hill with his railroad offering a buy'em or shove'em out step beyond the outlaws.

Now Hughes is gone, too, and a patina of respectability has been laid over the garish Strip by modern hotel chains. Hilton owns the Flamingo, where Bugsy started it all before he died in a hail of mobster bullets.

But the Hiltons have not covered the raw edges of Vegas anymore than having more congressmen than any other state in the union has erased the frontier heritage of California. Just west of here, in the costal states of California, Oregon and Washington, Manifest Destiny runs into an endles ocean. As a nation, America tried to push its destiny farther -- to places like the Philippines, where the push failed, and then later to out-post like Vietnam, where the push failed worse.

For individual maicontents -- those people who always moved West toward hope -- theres nowhere to go now beyond the Pacific surf.

West Coast cities like San Francisco and Seattle can be the most idyllic living places in the world. They also have the highest rates of sucide and alcoholism. When a person's destiny manifests itself as far as it can go and there still is no real paradise, what is the out?

So Vegas exists, as part of America's need for a frontier, part of its need for an escape. Las Vegas is there for California for the same reason California's moonbeam governor, Jerry Brown, wants his state to have its own space program -- an idea that only really gets really wacky as it crosses the time zone to the East, which shed its malcontents into these deserts long ago toward a frontier that once seemed limitless.

John Gregory Danne, the California author, found himself falling into a midife nervous breakdown, not enticely unlike that nation found itself in the 60s, at the height of the unrest over Vietnam, over determining who we were and where we were going. Dunne was having trouble making big decisions like whether to take the left turn to work in Los Angeles, so he took a right and ended up in Vegas instead.

After a summer of bumming around with one-legged ex-hookers and Runyonesque dealers, of living in a land with no clocks and blinding neon, Dunne went back fine, life's little idosyncracies never quite seeming so distorted again and decisions on left turns coming much more easily.