Retelling his story

Hal Rothman’s final book is a good argument for reading his earlier ones

Chuck Twardy

Before his February death from ALS, UNLV history professor Hal Rothman was the guy for anyone who needed a nugget about Las Vegas, from the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times to ABC’s World News Tonight and CBS Sunday Morning. Not a few local journalists also plucked Rothman’s well-worn card from their Rolodexes. Plug the name into the Lexis-Nexis news databank, and you will get more than 500 hits.

“I’m on television more than anybody who isn’t a member of the Screen Actors Guild,” Rothman once told the Review-Journal, as the Associated Press noted in its obituary.

It is not unusual for a scholar to play source—some savor the celebrity while affecting disdain for journalism. Rothman was rare in that he wrote frequently for a variety of local and regional outlets, including the Weekly’s corporate sibling, the Las Vegas Sun. He managed to do this while writing and editing books, teaching classes and, between 2002 and 2005, chairing the UNLV history department. His penultimate book, Blazing Heritage (Oxford University Press), a timely study of forest-fire management, was published in March. His last, Playing the Odds: Las Vegas and the Modern West, collects 66 of the articles Rothman wrote for the Sun, newwest.net, CityLife, the LA Times and others.

Rothman was a serviceable writer, but you have to turn to his more academic books to find him in better voice, which is anything but academic. There, he is feisty and occasionally caustic, and his animated prose reflects the enthusiasm of a kid who has figured out something complex and has to tell you about it. In 2002’s Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the 21st Century (Routledge), the roadie-turned-scholar unloads what he’s learned about his adopted home. You sense Rothman’s studies of the West and of tourism almost inevitably led him to a city vivid enough for his ardor.

And there, too, you find some of the tales that surface again in Playing the Odds—why the early Elvis failed and his later incarnation triumphed, for instance. Echoes ring throughout. The notion that Las Vegas “anticipates desire where competitors only reflect it” turns up in variations in pieces for different publications.

In his acknowledgments Rothman says his father urged him to collect these columns because they deserved “more enduring treatment,” and he credits an editor for accepting the volume “in fulfillment of an earlier obligation ...

“Most of these pieces were written after ALS began to ravage my body,” he tells you, and it’s hard to question a man, in the end stages of a miserable affliction, who wants to keep telling his story, thinking aloud.

Still, some essays in Playing the Odds are surprisingly unremarkable. Nevada politics is corrupt, and if only voters cared, maybe it wouldn’t be. Jim Gibbons showed poor judgment by ducking out of the rain with a woman not his wife. In several essays, Rothman celebrates the postmodern glory of inauthenticity, and in “The Perils of Ecotourism,” written in 1998 for the Outdoor Network, he scorns those seeking authenticity in ecotourism, suggesting they are delusional, if not dangerous.

He is more penetrating when discussing issues of broader concern to the Southwest. He praises Pat Mulroy’s farsighted guidance of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and he argues forcefully that cities, not agriculture, should have the larger claim on water. As an index of how political power should work in Nevada, and the country, this makes sense. It could be argued, though, that rampant urban growth in the desert is anything but wholesome, as it exacerbates atmospheric warming and thus reduces the snowmass that produces the Southwest’s water. It’s sad we’ve lost Rothman’s voice in this debate.

Playing the Odds keeps it alive, at least, when the topic turns to civic duty. Using his journalistic pulpit to preach communal ideals might have been Rothman’s best contribution to Las Vegas. When he regrets taking a child to a private recreation facility, or praises homeowners associations as the only measure of community commitment, Rothman takes up for a worthy but abandoned ideal. The narcissism he finds Las Vegas shrewdly cultivates, however, is the more the source of community decay than rugged Western individualism. It is hard to believe he failed to see that the city’s lifeblood, self-absorption, is the foundation of its problems.

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