The Secret History of Las Vegas
Author: Chris Abani
Penguin Books, 2014
Chris Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas is part thriller/murder mystery, part indictment against the brutality and injustice of apartheid in South Africa, but largely it is a reworking of pulp fiction distinguished by a veneer of weirdness and relieved by patches of appreciable beauty and originality. Secret History allows us a peek into the existence of the ostracized (the freaks), the marginalized (the prostitutes, the single mothers), and the silenced (the victims of government-sanctioned violence) but only lifts the flap a little bit before snapping it shut, much like the caul under which Fire hides himself when not talking.
The first section, “Bristlecone,” bursts with lyrical prose that is interesting in its mythological references, but perhaps disconnects the prologue from the story thereafter,with its spare style, dotted with ideas of striking iridescence. These moments include the word Selah, “Hebrew for a pause in the psalm, a moment to consider the music.” The name foreshadows the frequent interspersing of introspection in more action-oriented plot advancements.
In fact, although the writing is carefully deliberate, the story overall could be more tautly constructed, as the main character is given to lengthy musings which, while intriguing, can slow the pace of Secret History, decreasing the degree of sustainable suspense. In one instance, he wonders if “the current city of Las Vegas … would be read as the perfect Earth culture … to some future generation” and continues on in this vein. It can be argued that these ruminations add depth and background. However, as Las Vegas is not so much lived in Secret History as it is meditated on, at times his thoughts can be compared to a desert ghost town seen through a heat haze—inconclusive, or perhaps even disappointing upon perusal due to misleading evidence.
Events move forward once Detective Salazar comes across conjoined Fire and Water under suspicious circumstances involving a drum full of blood. Salazar is a foul-mouthed and rudely abrasive man immersed in guilt (a common trope for fictional law enforcement officers in the police procedural) over a crime he has not been able to solve.
At his first sight of the conjoined twins Fire and Water, he demands, “What the fuck are you?” Fire’s answer that they are “people” is met with Salazar’s retort, “You don’t look much like people.” Salazar comes to the conclusion that Fire and Water are the murderers he has been looking for. Having worked for the Las Vegas police for twenty years and on the verge of retirement, he probably ought to operate on more definitive evidence instead of instantly condemning the twins for their gruesome joined appearance. While Salazar spends considerable time and effort sentencing them to claustrophobic scrutiny, the real murderer is left undetected.
Salazar requests that Sunil Singh, a half-Zulu, half-Sikh doctor from South Africa specializing in the study of psychopaths, help him on the case. Seeing as how Sunil, who also worked with Salazar on the murder of dozens of homeless men some time before,was unable to assist him then, it is unclear why Salazar thought he would be any more helpful this time. Salazar himself could possibly be better rounded as a character—he is the usual hardboiled detective with a slight dimension added in the form of an unusual talent in building exquisite wooden ships, which he then sets on fire as a tribute to case victims.
The three women in Sunil’s life—Jan, Asia, and Sheila—can be perceived as more female generalities than individual personalities. Jan’s role as Sunil’s first romantic interest is necessary because the latter’s participation in her death causes Eskia, Sunil’s school rival,to go after him for revenge. Sunil claims that he flees from Jan because he is afraid to love—and then proceeds to fall for the beautiful yet vulnerable prostitute Asia (a generic convention). Coworker Sheila cares deeply for Sunil, but he does not return her affections; her role is of questionable use to the story except to further the complicated network of people connected to Sunil.
The Secret History of Las Vegas is not about unwitting witness to evil, subsequent penance, and final redemption. As the fulcrum around which the other characters turn, Sunil does not find a moral compass so indispensable that he will forgo convenience and security to keep it oriented. At every opportunity to change an unjust situation, Sunil’s willpower flags and he desists from action. As a specimen of predictable inconstancy, Sunil’s lack of moral integrity enables monsters like Eugene to drag their victims (Jan) into the night, and Brewster to treat human beings (homeless men) as trashed experiments.
Sunil’s comfortable job relies on manipulation of human minds for the purposes of the military, to discover how to control the unleashing of the berserker within. Raising a small verbal resistance to his bullying supervisor’s unethical methods accomplishes nothing except to earn the former’s derision—therefore a compliment from humanity. The unsettling breach caused by not having a sympathetic character is not necessarily an issuein the reading of Secret History. However, to perceive Sunil as a figure of compassion, someone striving for forgiveness for past wrongdoings by determining to live anew (as many readers and critics have done), may not be entirely accurate. In addition, an abruptly revealed lover-relationship, as well as the startling truth announced at the very end, could perhaps have more smoothly integrated and better germinated.
Abani’s ambition to encapsulate the sense of cultural displacement experienced by morally compromised characters within the conventions of the genre is highly laudable,and his breadth of vision in recreating the horrifying memories of South Africa in sleazy and glittery Las Vegas, praiseworthy. However, there lingers a sense of incompleteness in the development of The Secret History of Las Vegas, with several enigmas left unexplored regarding the Carnival of Lost Souls, that somewhat dilutes the significance of what is actually disclosed.