Flatlined in Vegas

A UNLV professor’s short stories about a dying culture are D.O.A.

In his new collection of short stories, Off Paradise: Stories, German-born Hart Wegner, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tells the muddled tale of a family of self-exiled Eastern Europeans and their journey from the proverbial “Old Country.” They end up in Las Vegas—specifically, a house off Paradise Road.

Picture a family sitting around the kitchen table with an old shoebox full of faded, yellowing photographs and tattered paper scrapbooks, telling stories that only they can truly appreciate, and that only they can truly understand. Off Paradise is a collection of experiences that are dear to this family of WWII refugees, chronicling their history, struggle and strife—all that makes them who they are. However, this doesn’t mean that every family’s personal history makes a good read.

I appreciate Wegner’s insight into “Old Country” mentality, but I can’t say I plan to use this work as a model to nurse my own family sapling. What I can say is, for this reader, Off Paradise is a great recipe for deep and untroubled sleep.

An extended family of Silesians—Silesia being the mountainous border region between Germany and Poland—tell us their often pointless stories, routinely followed by an endless regurgitation of memories, as they struggle to retain their cultural identity in America. Social Darwinism threatens the extinction of their Silesian heritage, and the characters of Martin, Ala (Martin’s codependent ex-wife) and Martin’s aging parents ceaselessly conjure up the past to keep Silesia alive, if only in their own minds. This is the “hero’s quest” of Off Paradise, but I can assure you that there were no heroes to rescue me from this one.

The major problem with the work, as you may have guessed, is the characters (or the lack thereof). Wegner has filled 212 pages with a cast of wandering, lost souls. The static personas of his characters plague the text, and the narrative voices are barely audible whispers. There is no passion and certainly not any big T&D (Trauma & Drama) in this work, where it seems obvious there should be. The characters are quite apathetic, so it is hard to decipher whether or not they actually care whether their Silesian heritage withers to dust in the Vegas desert.

Perhaps Wegner tried to express some semblance of devout nationalism in his characters, but if indeed this was the psychological pulse of his work, he fails to drive the point home. The only great “discovery” of Martin’s character is this: “What Las Vegas is, America will be, and Germany will become. Those who insist on remembering will die out … Those who remember will be replaced by those who forget …” Thus, we are left in the end with no closure, only Martin’s dim glimmer of an epiphany, shorting out like an old fluorescent casino sign on the outskirts of Vegas.

Alas, the reader must suffer through nine short stories that drop us off at the outskirts of reality, yet never take us into the city limits. In short, I was lost without my Thomas Guide for literature. The constant gyrations through time made the book hard to follow, to say the least. Off Paradise turned out to be more of a Paradise Lost … with not quite enough juice for the likes of Sin City.