Lost wages

Las Vegas Noir proves it’s sometimes hard to find the moral high ground in a valley that’s slowly sinking into the desert. When everything’s wrong, one tends to equivocate. It’s like saying that since communion wine is acceptable in church, it’s just as acceptable to sit back in a pew and do Jello shots.

Unlike classic noir stories where a hardboiled, sarcastic bastard chases down the bad guys while sleeping with buxom blondes and cracking wise, modern noir is a story of degrees, where everyone is the bad guy. Some people are just worse. Like the pregnant, coke-dealing cocktail waitress in David Corbett’s “Pretty Little Parasite.” She becomes so empowered by the dope trade that she quits her job at the casino and begins to move large amounts of coke in order to become a stay-at-home mother after the birth of her sweet, precious little daughter.

The moral compass is greased up and spins around and around with nowhere to point. Its ambiguity is lost in its own echo. These lives are truly and utterly wrecked. But we don’t see how they got there. We only see them at the apogee of failure and ruin. Makes for a good read.

Sin City is the latest to get the noir treatment in Akashic Books’ series that now includes, among others, Brooklyn, Los Angeles and New Orleans. But it’s not a Las Vegas that really exists outside the imaginations of the debauched. It’s the pure and wretched form of Las Vegas that we are sold in mafia movies and pulp bloodbaths. The kind of vice kingdom the businessman dreams about, and secretly hopes for, the night before his flight. A place where there are no rules. A pressure valve in the middle of the desert where the pain of civilization and the need to follow all the rules of society and the demands it makes on a person don’t exist. An adult superstore that sells every type of fantasy anyone could think up, not just sexual.

The 16 stories in Las Vegas Noir are cold enough to give the reader frostbite, despite the 100 degree sun, the palm trees, the waterfall grottos, the warm neon moonlight, the oven winds.

“The feeling of being alive poured over me, elemental and singular,” says the transient felon and recent parolee in John O’Brien’s murderous “The Tik.”

Noir means “black” in French. Las Vegas Noir is a shade of black. The kind of unwashed, choking darkness that sticks to your gums.

In Pablo Medina’s “Bennie Rojas and the Rough Riders,” a Cuban card dealer in Meyer Lanksy-era Vegas is caught among Castro, $20,000, a girl and a butcher knife that’s recently ripped through the vital organs of his downstairs neighbor.

Scott Phillips’ “Babs,” features speed freaks in a trailer picking at scabs and watching their friends get arrested on COPS. The pathos of the fantasy. These stories make Vegas out to be a kind of Fantasy Island where everybody is Tatu.

From crappy North Vegas to uppity suburbs of Summerlin to Area 51 and Atomic City, land of the dead test site dummies. Las Vegas Noir even makes a stop in the grease-and-piss pit Pahrump.

It may not be a true paradise, but what is?