There we were, watching singer-songwriter Jim James singing Woody Guthrie’s relevant-again “Changing World” with the glorious, sunset-basking formations of Red Rock Canyon as a backdrop. It’s not the usual place we’re accustomed to being entertained; James has been partial to Brooklyn Bowl of late, and he wasn’t scheduled to appear until the next night at the Bunkhouse’s closing party anyway.
Adding to the surrealism (and beauty) of the occasion is that we’re at the kickoff of Southern Nevada’s second book-centric festival—one being produced by The Believer, one of the country’s most respected arts and literature journals, which, by the way, is now based here.
It received the equivalent of a welcome party this weekend at the American Dreams festival, produced by the magazine’s new publisher, UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute, making the case for culture in Las Vegas, and for its possible influence on it. I’m not sure what was more encouraging: the high quality of speakers, readers and performers during Friday evening’s launch and Saturday’s three events, or their fairly sizable audiences (despite lackluster promotion and aided by free tickets)
American Dreams was reason enough to lure a cultural luminary like Carrie Brownstein, the de facto headliner of the festival, known most for her roles in punk trio Sleater-Kinney and IFC program Portlandia, but also her work for The New Yorker, her contributions to NPR and her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. On Saturday in front of a nearly packed house at Place on 7th, she read not from that 18-month-old book but her short piece on acquiring Cher’s workout shirt as a kid. She also sat for an interview with Dave Eggers, who's as influential in literary circles (McSweeney’s publishing house, 2000’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) as Brownstein is in music and TV. Both are also equally unlikely Vegas visitors, as Brownstein admitted that “my dad lives in Vegas … but I never visit him.”
That segment was less about the American Dream than the two events that preceded it, programmed with other national literary rock stars who delivered engrossing readings and lectures. Luis Alberto Urrea riveted the crowds with wit-resplendent perspective at both Red Rock Canyon on Friday evening and the Mob Museum courtroom on Saturday morning. Sally Wen Mao, also at both events, shared a hilarious story about the tearless girl whose eyes released swarms of flies whenever she cried.
There were also local performers such as Nicholas Russell, a confident new voice emerging from Las Vegas whose wisdom belies his youth, and well-versed attorney Dayvid Figler, who reliably livened things up at the Saturday morning showcase with his American dream treatise on Elvis impersonators, even passing out sideburn-enhanced sunglasses to mock judges ZZ Packer (also a New Yorker contributor) and Dan Hamilton (dean of UNLV’s Boyd School of Law).
Perhaps the most impressionistic performance of American Dreams was writer/director Miranda July’s eye-opening turn at Place. Before reading her Playboy-rejected and jaw-dropping short story about a woman who allows herself to be seduced by her dog, she read roughly 30 anonymous sexual fantasies she had solicited from female attendees beforehand—an exercise she said she’d never done before. They ran the gamut of eroticism and tone, but many of them were stunning in their simple pleading for intimacy, one woman asking not for sexual adventure, but that her lover merely look into her eyes and convey something loving. As such, the exercise was at turns titillating and heartbreaking—July was in tears at the exercise’s conclusion—but always humanizing and mind-broadening, especially for a gay man like myself. If she hadn’t begun the second portion of her performance, I would have been content to remain in my seat and further ponder the dynamics, complexity and sensitivity of female sexuality.
It was the most potent takeaway I had in a weekend full of them. Whether or not the American Dreams festival ushers in a new literary era for Las Vegas, it most definitely represented a capital-C cultural milestone.