Tunnel vision

Las Vegas gets a paltry 4.49 inches of rain annually. So freely assume the miles of flood control channels running under the city do more than divert water. People have taken to living underground rather than dealing with what goes on overhead. Why not? With roaming gangs of feral street children, crooked cops and countless other depraved acts going on in plain view, it seems almost safer in a clandestine cement tube. Las Vegas, one of the most predatory cities in the United States, harbors fascinating things down deep.

Inspired by historical accounts of life underground, from the Christians to the Viet Cong and, most recently, murderer TJ Weber’s frantic underground escape from a crime scene, Matthew O’Brien, news editor of Las Vegas CityLife, traveled through 50 storm drains, interviewing those he encountered. He and photographer Danny Mollohan chronicle it all in Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas.

O’Brien’s interviewees are enthralling. He meets poets, failed horse jockeys and naked crackheads. Some of these people have lived in tunnels for years. He keeps the language pretty simple. He asks stock questions—how, why—that elicit exciting responses. O’Brien remains just distant enough in his questioning to avoid being intrusive, but he gets close enough to draw out a sense of these people’s lives. After all, O’Brien’s setting doesn’t invite tactless questioning. However, you feel as though you’ve gotten an accurate sense of tunnel life and come to understand the hopes of degenerate gamblers, drunks and junkies stuck in the tunnels and what they envision in their dreams.

O’Brien comes off non-threatening and engaged, and he swiftly wins the confidence of people not necessarily given to trusting surface dwellers. Earning trust is a difficult but imperative skill needed to extract the life stories of these underground denizens, learning their woes and shortcomings while discovering their shared humanity. They may not reach for a weapon, but it’s not an easy feat convincing strangers to self-incriminate about costly video poker addictions and cheap vodka dependency.

O’Brien liberally doses his writing with overtones of danger, suspense and Mag-Lite endorsements, yet nothing violent ever happens. From O’Brien’s experiences, black widows are the scariest things down there. Despite the potential for a freak 20 mph wall of floodwater speeding toward him unannounced in the darkness, one could mistakenly assume that a good percentage of Sin City subterraneans take to the tunnels for the cool climes, cheap rent, and pensive quiet. O’Brien’s primetime sensationalism—his talk about Khukuri knives and tunnels shaped like shotgun barrels—is the only detractor in this book because the reader quickly comes to understand that O’Brien is just as frightening to each tunnel person as they are to him.

Las Vegas can be a mean, unforgiving place. The never-ending free alcohol, beckoning casino lights and harsh climate contribute largely to the volatility there. O’Brien points out that “most desert animals live underground,” and most of the people in this book consider their present situation a fine alternative to life above ground.

Beneath the Neon features people grasping in the dark, trying to get a firm hold on what’s not there.