Lionel Shriver understands America.
Las Vegas is impervious to jokes, because it already is one. Vegas is mockery-proof. The strip is so over the top, so jubilantly, unashamedly fake (even the rocks are artificial), so ebulliently and confessedly crass, so contented with or even proud of its own trashiness that you can't make fun of the place. How can you deride a wooden Trojan horse two storeys high that doubles as an FAO Schwarz toy store? It is pre-ridiculous. This frustrates the likes of myself no end, because pejoratives like "tacky", "tasteless", and "garish" ping off a giant gold-painted sphinx like pennies off a curb. Because one cannot parody parody and I do not gamble, I had nothing to do.
So it was inevitable that on a second swing through I'd no longer be able to find Las Vegas a zany, kooky, harmless American one-off, but would disparage it as a ghastly monument to American vapidity. Folks in the richest country in the world do not know what to do with their money in their leisure time save try to scrounge more of it, and do not truly embrace their own supposed work ethic.
Indeed, given that many of my countrymen's concept of entertainment is heading for a line of casinos whose decor is so loud it makes your eyes hurt, whose patterned carpet and even air freshener has been carefully researched as encouraging you to lose your shirt, I am not convinced that most of the gamblers I spied on last week would have any idea on what to spend their winnings even if they improbably hit the jackpot.
All money is not created equal. It means something different depending on what you did to get it. Surely earning money - earning it - is an underrated joy. I find being paid for my labours ceaselessly gratifying, and the harder I've worked for any given cheque, the more sumptuous the texture of the paper. By contrast, how satisfying is dosh that you came by not because you were smart or talented or diligent, but lucky?
If this seems hopelessly humourless about a town that intends to be a laugh, the amount of cash involved is serious. The bar at Wynne's, the newest and most lavish casino on the block, boasts of a $75 martini, and you sense its designers grew frustrated at running out of nooks into which to cram polished Italian marble. My father-in-law tells me that when his car got dusty last week he came upon a woman playing a slot machine who was going through $400 a minute. That was $24,000 an hour, at a car wash.
I do admire the nerve and devil-may-care required to put thousands on the stumble of a roulette ball. I concede that if you're canny enough to follow a few simple rules in blackjack - always double aces and eights, always double-down on an 11, don't take a hit if you're holding 12 or more and the dealer is showing a five or six - you can walk away with a few bills left in your wallet. But a quick look round a casino and you start to wonder, who pays all these croupiers and cleaners, who ultimately finances the orchids in every room? Losers. More losers than winners by a yard, and that rational calculation, aside from sheer wimpiness, explains why I don't gamble.