Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Skin City by Jack Sheehan

So I'm in Las Vegas right at this very moment. Since I'm normally in New Jersey, to get here I had to fly. And, before I could do that, I had to pick some books to take to read on the trip.

That might seem simple, but when you have as many unread books as I do -- or, perhaps, if you merely are me -- picking what to read next becomes a process that can take several hours over several days, with lots of pulling things out, frowning, and then putting them back again. Eventually -- after seriously considering Replay, a book of Evelyn Waugh short stories, several Anthony Trollope novels, and the most recent novel in the "Malazan Book of the Fallen" series -- I finally decided to read books about Vegas while I was in Vegas.

I decided that because I came across this book, which I picked up from a "free books" shelf back at the book clubs soon after it was published in paperback by Harper in 2006. It was really now or never -- if I didn't read about about the sleazy side of Vegas before my first trip there, when would I ever? So I read a big chunk of it in Newark Airport, waiting for my flight, and then some more here.

And I have to warn you that this book is one of the largest manifestations of bait & switch that I've ever seen. It's packaged like a frat boy's guide to the seamy side of Las Vegas -- a burst on the cover says "Includes Insider Tips to Vegas's Best Adult Entertainment" and the inside flap has a list of topics covered, all strongly consumer-focused on the horny fella (or possibly gal or couple) coming to Vegas with an eye to something sexy.

The book itself was originally published in 2004 by Stephens Press, and I strongly suspect -- though the book doesn't say -- that the last chapter was added for the Harper edition (it declares that it was written in 2005, which is one clue) and that the other chapters mostly or partly were magazine articles to begin with. Those earlier chapters are nearly all very clearly and closely based on Sheehan's interviews with a very small handful of people each -- three female porn stars get their own chapters, as do a pair of high-priced prostitutes and a madam, as does a couple that run a swingers club, as do three lawmen who mutter darkly about prostitution being completely run by lowlife men and organized crime and full of underage girls (this being utterly opposite to the chapters that have interviews with women in the sex trade), and so forth. Sheehan makes no attempt to bring any of his separate pieces together, each chapter is about sex in one way or another, and they're all about people with some connection to Las Vegas (some more tenuous than others), but they're not about the sex industry here in any systematic way.

What Sheehan aparently did was write a number of magazine pieces that were all vaguely tittilating and had enough local color to be sold to a local outlet. Then, when the stack of those writings was as large as a book, he stuck them into a book without (as far as I can tell) doing much of anything to unify them. Two years later, he re-sold the book to Harper, which got him to add one last chapter on strip clubs (with lots and lots of thin sidebars, suitable for a Playboy article on the city), use that chapter as the hook, and misrepresent the whole book.

If you'd like to read a book of interviews with a few mid-rank porn stars, strippers, and call girls, here's Skin City. If you're looking for a serious (or silly, or wildly incorrect, or whatever) guide to the sex biz in Vegas, you'll be left feeling like the man at the strip club two seconds after the lap dancer realizes he's out of money.

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