The title suggests the witching hour, and the gauzy photo of a dancing couple reinforces that idea. ’Round Midnight. To what else could the name refer?
In the sophomore novel by CSN professor Laura McBride (published this month by Touchstone), midnight is both a time and a place. The story centers on the Midnight Club at the El Capitan, a Strip hotel-casino that seems analogous to the once-grand Sahara. This clever double meaning hints at the book’s theme. McBride doesn’t just write about Las Vegas as a place. She writes about Las Vegas as three places separated by decades.
The story begins with Vegas in the 1950s, a city that seems like the height of freedom. Jewish beauty June Stein, the first of four female protagonists, moves here to escape her hometown: “It was Vegas in the fifties … when a young woman who enjoyed men and adventure and the casual breaking of conventions was something of a community treasure.”
June goes on to marry the El Capitan’s owner. When the couple hires a talented black singer to headline the Midnight Club, everybody flourishes. But it turns out that convention is hiding behind “fun and dare and newness.” June encounters heartbreak when she violates the unspoken racial codes of the time.
By 1992, Las Vegas and the El Capitan act as a sort of gilded prison for a Filipino mail-order bride. Honorata’s story line explores the question we all ask: What happens when you hit the Megabucks. Even if that plot device seems trite, McBride covers it naturalistically, giving life and humanity to the tale of a reluctant immigrant.
The third story line follows Coral, a biracial music teacher of unknown heritage with an amazing, natural voice. For Coral, who grew up in Vegas, coming home after some time away meant “returning to that old sense of something not right.” McBride writes, “This was a Vegas feeling ...”
By 2010, the El Capitan has fallen on hard times, and the star nightclub has been downgraded to a café. Enter the final protagonist, Engracia. The story of this housekeeper and illegal immigrant is the least developed, but in the space given, McBride works to flesh out the character.
The stories all intersect—Coral later becomes Honorata’s neighbor, and Honorata hires Engracia as a maid—and the varied characters create a sense of community in Las Vegas. McBride’s efforts to shine spotlights on the Las Vegans who are often overlooked is one of the book’s highlights. For all the chatter surrounding “finding the real Vegas,” this, folks, is it.