By Dario Diofebi
“Las Vegas is a city of stories,” Dario Diofebi asserts more than once in his debut novel, “Paradise, Nevada.” Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that any city, whether Rome or Seattle, Paris or Paducah, is a city of stories. Las Vegas is a city of the kinds of stories that appeal to ambitious writers keen to advance a grand statement: tales of working-class people and moneyed tourists, professional poker players, Mormons, criminals and drifters, all of whom rub shoulders at the casinos on the Strip. Las Vegas is so gauche, this line of thinking goes, so unabashed about its own vulgarity, that it is a perfect metonym for that original embarrassment, America. The same might be said of this gaseous, bloated 500-page exemplar of narrative sprawl.
Paradise, Nev., is a real place — the unincorporated, census-designated town where the Las Vegas Strip is actually located — and the title’s obvious joke is that this unfortunate outpost in the desert (“the ugliest city in America,” as a character who has come to shop at its outlet malls puts it) is anything but. Here, an eccentric, reclusive billionaire named Al Wiles has built the Positano, a facsimile of Italy’s Amalfi Coast that is meant to resemble the real lasagna in every faux detail: “the cliffs, the sea, down to the … lemon trees!”
The resort, where much of the drama takes place, exerts its gaudy, philistine pull on the four main characters. Tom, an Italian immigrant and “hopeless beta” who overstays his visa to play professional poker. Ray, an online poker whiz turned live player who exists “in pursuit of a perfect machinelike neutrality toward outcomes,” and whose tedious sections read as if they were generated by A.I. Mary Ann, a depressed, down-on-her-luck (of course) cocktail waitress who wants to “metaphorically vomit herself out of her body” and finds purpose in joining a shadow union working to sabotage the casino. And Lindsay, a 20-something Mormon journalist who has written an article about layoffs at one of Wiles’s secondary resorts. The omniscient third-person narrator weaves in and out of their thoughts, along with those of a chorus of minor characters — so many that the book feels fractured and lacks momentum.