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New Literary Portraits of the American West

Contemporary Nevada Fiction

David Rio

This book focuses on contemporary Nevada fiction as one of the most probing and intense literary explorations of the American West as a whole. Recent fictional representations of Nevada possess a revelatory value in relation to the whole West because they encompass some of the most common thematic trends in contemporary western writing. Actually, the thematic maturation of Nevada fiction over the last four decades often parallels the evolution of postfrontier writing, in particular, its growing departure from the overused topics and images of the formula western. Nevada fiction also possesses some unique and distinctive themes, such as its depiction of Basque immigrants, its emphasis on nuclear testing and nuclear waste, and its portrait of such peculiar cities as Reno and Las Vegas. This study discusses contemporary writing set in Nevada both by Nevadans (Robert Laxalt, Frank Bergon, Willy Vlautin, Phyllis Barber, Claire Vaye Watkins…) and by non-resident authors (Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Larry McMurtry…), drawing new attention to a remarkable literature that has been too often neglected in discussions of the American West.
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2. The Silver State vs the Sin State: Nevada and its Fictional Portraits


2.  The Silver State vs the Sin State: Nevada and its Fictional Portraits

Those who study the literature of the American West tend to believe there is an entrenched prejudice in favor of minor novels […] written amidst the cultural prestige of England or New England and a prejudice against excellent novels […] written about the harsh plains of Nebraska or the unprestigious deserts of Nevada.

(Max Westbrook in A Literary History of the American West)

Nevada literature, and Nevada fiction in particular, may be regarded as illustrative examples of the weight of the traditional scholarly prejudice against western writing. In the case of Nevada writing this prejudice was emphasized by the extended negative image of the state, too often linked to easy money and a sleazy lifestyle due to its libertarian laws regarding divorce, prostitution, and gambling. As Wilbur S. Shepperson has stated, “the area was not regarded as a major contributor to the world of culture or an important marketer of refined ideas” (Restless Strangers 2). In fact, until the last decades of the twentieth century “few people suspected there was a substantial body of Nevada literature worth reading” (Griffin, “Preface” xxii). Even western scholars seemed to share this belief because they tended to reduce Nevada literature almost exclusively to Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novels and short stories, including also sometimes Robert Laxalt’s literary production. Thus A Literary History of the American West only mentions two Nevada writers, Clark and Laxalt, focusing mainly on...

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