In its attempts to capture our anxious American essence, Dario Diofebi’s debut, “Paradise, Nevada,” is a throwback to the sprawling 1990s systems novel on both a conceptual level and a sentence-for-sentence basis. A former professional poker player, Diofebi submits Las Vegas — a crossroads of capitalist grift, real estate speculation and right-wing Christianity — as an emblem of our national ailment, a perpetual boomtown sustained by a transient service class. With a narrative whipsawing among four neurotic protagonists, “Paradise, Nevada” charts a collision course through the gaming industry, grappling with Vegas’s objectifying entertainment complex and accelerating tech sphere.
At its core, “Paradise, Nevada” is a moral inquiry into the profit motive, with poker a metaphor for the diminishing returns of a consolidated U.S. economy. Like private equity and venture-backed start-ups, the Vegas card tables have become domains of cutthroat risk assessment, with professional sharks preying upon hapless tourists for their sustenance. “Poker too had become, through the greed and incapacity for cooperation of its agents, a no-technical-solution problem, a state of impasse that no amount of thinking could overcome,” considers Ray, a Stanford dropout and aspiring tournament pro. “If the problem of the unfair distribution of assets in the future of poker didn’t have a technical solution, then conscience was what needed to be reformed.” The threat of machine-driven oblivion also worries Mary Ann, a casino waitress; Lindsay, a struggling Mormon journalist; and even Tom, an Italian immigrant overstaying his visa.
While Diofebi’s exposition and extensive footnotes owe a debt to Wallace’s work, his closest analogue is Tom Wolfe, whose breathless reporting and visual detail prompted critics to wonder why he bothered writing fiction at all. In Diofebi’s case, the conceit is clear enough — if anything, his characters feel too much like mouthpieces for his arguments, and not enough like people. The protagonists are earnest rubes, the antagonists villainous caricatures, and as in Wolfe’s best-selling tomes, the unlikely subplots thread into a fiery, calamitous climax. Like Wolfe’s New York in 1987’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and his Atlanta in 1998’s “A Man in Full,” Diofebi’s Vegas is typical of civilizational rot, a city unsustainable in its gluttony.
It’s reductive to criticize such an ambitious debut for its length, but there’s a great little poker novel buried within “Paradise, Nevada” — one which, admittedly, would have been a harder sell to the literary presses. The book’s drama unfolds at the card table — the rivers, the flops, the risks and consequences — in a way that jolts adrenaline regardless of your familiarity with the game. Diofebi evokes poker as the most American of pastimes: part lottery, part math quiz, part day-trading. “An old game for card sharks and Vegas gamblers suddenly turned into a sport, and an improbably democratic one at that, in which anybody, anybody, could dream of beating the world’s best, and make a fortune in the process,” contemplates Tom. At the same time, it’s a grind for the workaday pros who play thousands upon thousands of hands, many of them drawn to Vegas after the government outlawed high-stakes poker websites. Diofebi’s scuzzy ambiance is delicately crafted, his scenes deftly taxonomizing tiers of desperate gamblers and casino staff like species in a field guide.
Diofebi is oddly wary of all the poker talk, frequently reminding us that Texas Hold ‘Em was a short-lived fad among unshaven young men. He needn’t apologize — it’s clear that he’s fascinated by these decadent Obama-era subcultures, and the book’s consideration of pickup artists and fraternity brothers is more compelling than his writing about the labor movement and the border crisis. He also displays a thorough understanding of the Mormon Church and its history, although his efforts to draw throughlines to our uneasy present often feel labored. Diofebi is a keen observer of power structures, and any one of these themes might have warranted a full book’s examination. “Paradise, Nevada” brims with big ideas, even if they don’t always cohere into a single systemic critique.
Pete Tosiello is a writer and critic based in New York.