My Week at the Blue Angel
Folks struggling to get by, hanging on by the skin of their teeth, living in weekly hotels, trailer parks and even the storm drains and sewers of Las Vegas—these are the Nevadans that Matthew O’Brien writes about in My Week at the Blue Angel, a collection of literary nonfiction stories, many of which were originally published in CityLife, a Las Vegas alt-weekly newspaper, similar to this one.
“I wanted to show people a side of Vegas that most tourists don’t know about, and even most locals don’t know about a lot of these places,” said O’Brien in a recent phone conversation.
The collection begins with “Where’s Jesse?” a story about two Canadians who came to Las Vegas to search for their missing 20-something daughter, a woman who seemed to have been crushed by the undermost belly of the city and vanished without a trace. Her parents are stricken by loss and frustrated by institutional indifference. The story immediately sets the tone of presenting Vegas as a place where a person can be swallowed whole.
“I like leading off with ‘Where’s Jesse?’ because it had the mom and the dad flying into Las Vegas, you know, the lights and coming here, but coming here for different reasons than most people come to Vegas,” said O’Brien. “They weren’t coming here to gamble or to party or to go to a convention. They were coming here to try to find their daughter.”
If “Where’s Jesse?” serves as an introduction to the city as a grotesque character, the second story in the collection, “Hunting Hunter,” introduces the author, an adventurous young journalist in search of untold stories. In “Hunting Hunter,” O’Brien retraces what steps remain of Hunter S. Thompson, the author of probably the most famous book ever written about the city, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. O’Brien visits the gun club and bizarre casinos that form the backdrop of Thompson’s most famous book. Though many of the locations in Thompson’s book have disappeared, or at least changed their names, that sense of absurdity he tapped into remains lurking near every surface.
After “Hunting Hunter,” O’Brien profiles, among others, an ex-con trying to find work, a family forced to leave their trailer park, and a strip club owner trying to start a church dedicated to Thomas Paine.
The centerpiece of the collection is the title story, “My Week at the Blue Angel,” a story that humanizes the transient population of a weekly motel.
“These weekly motels—I’m sure there’s a few of them in Reno—but there are hundreds down here seemingly,” said O’Brien, “and they’re easy to stereotype or judge, but I’ve always been curious, what’s the history of this motel? What was it like in its prime? Who used to stay there? Who stays there now? How did they end up there? What are their hopes and dreams?”
The people O’Brien met during his stay include a Vietnam veteran with a litany of health problems and a dog he loves dearly, as well as a charismatic woman with a hippie philosophy and a seemingly unhealthy obsession with The Beatles. His stay at the Blue Angel was bookended by encounters with two very different oracle cabdrivers.
My Week at the Blue Angel is O’Brien’s second book. His first, Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas, is about his explorations of the city’s flood tunnels, and the people who live there. Blue Angel includes two stories about his explorations of the tunnels, as well as a piece about the city’s sewage treatment plant. O’Brien recently co-founded Shine a Light, a rehabilitation and housing organization for folks so washed away by the city of Vegas that they actually take to living in the sewers beneath it.