Tuesday, August 06, 2013

[Books] Book Look: Beneath the Neon, by Matt O'Brien

Book Look: Beneath the Neon, by Matt O'Brien: I have a theory about nonfiction: The more it mirrors the qualities of fiction the better it is. OK, that's too dull a knife, but the thing is you still need to engage the reader beyond simply being a book length magazine article. You should think about the arc of the book; have a beginning middle and end; character development is great, if possible (although often the developed character is the author, which presents its own problems). Remember the post from last month identifying four aspects of storytelling: Character, Milieu, Events, Ideas? You still need these. Beneath the Neon started life as a series of magazine articles, and I suspect they were quite good because the book is essentially a good magazine article that got in over its head.

Las Vegas is, as you probably know, built in the middle of a desert. One characteristic of the desert is that when it rains, it pours. Literally. That is to say, a heavy rain in the surrounding mountains can cause massive floods as it flashes through the hard desert soil. So in Las Vegas there are a series of storm drains and flood plains that guide the water through underground tunnels and away from the slot machines. This tunnel complex snakes for miles beneath some of the glitziest and most luxurious properties in the world. This tunnel complex also houses a sizeable, and surprisingly stable, community of homeless.

O'Brien makes a number of exploratory forays into the tunnels. He finds them to be dark and scary places which I don't doubt -- dangerous too. Not a place you want to be a few minutes after a big rain in the mountains. Rushing water after a major rain has been known to take more than a few lives of homeless who were taken by surprise. It's also not a place you want to be because it's just disgusting -- spiders and roaches and rats, oh my. And worst of all, the very invisibility of the place can attract dangerous and desperate people. O'Brien's interest in the storm drains first arose upon reading about a grisly murder wherein the perp escaped a police dragnet via the tunnels.

Naturally O'Brien's explorations introduce him to the homeless who've taken up residence in the tunnels, often building very elaborate camps and sleeping arrangements. Why live in the tunnels instead of, say, a homeless shelter? The common answer is that the tunnels are simply free and cool and away from the Vegas madness and scorching heat, and especially because in the tunnels they are not bothered. The implication being the bureaucratic and therapeutic demands of the welfare services are too bothersome to them. Fair enough. In fact, there a number of common elements in the stories of the homeless. First is almost invariably some form of addiction, usually substance but since this is Vegas, gambling goes along with it. Second, they seem to acknowledge their addictions, there appears to be no inclination to cast blame on some scapegoat. Third, they have a plan for exit however tenuous it may be; usually it's as soon as they get a certain amount of money they are going to get out of town and straighten out their lives. The interactions with the homeless are quite interesting up to a point.

So far so good, but after a while the reader is left feeling as though there is no coherent purpose beyond documentation. By the end of the book we are now several tunnel explorations and homeless encounters on and we pretty much feel as though we've seen it all before. O'Brien makes half-hearted attempts at a unifying theme. He covers quite a bit of historical precedents for taking to tunnels -- Christians escaping Roman persecution, Jews in Poland during WW2 -- although it's hard to draw causal analogies of those situations to substance abuse. He also contrasts tunnel life to the gaudy world above and edges toward haves vs. have-nots issues but, to his credit, he has to abandon those as too simple-minded to offer any constructive meaning.

In the end we are left with the descriptions of his journeys which are peppered with extraneous details like what music was playing in the car and specific descriptions of his clothes that, when combined with the similarity of his adventures, begins to leave the sense that there is a fair amount of filler here. As if it is something that could be boiled down into a crisply worded Amazon short. Should you read Beneath the Neon? I don't see any particular urgency, but no harm will come to you if you do. Even if it doesn't merit a book length treatment, the topic is interesting. Might be worth getting a feel for which passages you can skip early on.