Hope and survival in Sin City

Timothy O'Grady interviewed 10 of his literature students at the University of Nevada for his book, Children Of Las Vegas.
Timothy O'Grady interviewed 10 of his literature students at the University of Nevada for his book, Children Of Las Vegas.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Timothy O'Grady's new book is an intimate classroom confessional about growing up in Las Vegas

When author Timothy O'Grady turned up one day for his literature class at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he found that none of his students had read the assigned short story.

They had not bought the required book because they did not have the money. Raw, personal tales of the pain and struggles of growing up in Las Vegas poured forth instead.

O'Grady, who is in his 60s, recalls: "There seemed to be some hostility towards their parents. They said, 'Oh yeah, our parents go through our pockets stealing our money.'

"They're drunk at 11 in the morning. We've been raising ourselves since we were eight. My sister saved up money to get married and my mother stole it. My father stole my school loans, my pay cheque, my identity, taking out money on my credit card."

From that intimate classroom confessional came Children Of Las Vegas, O'Grady's seventh book. It contains interviews with 10 of his students, accompanied by black- and-white portraits by photographer Steve Pyke, and short essays on Las Vegas written by O'Grady.

Children Of Las Vegas

Unbound UK published the UK edition of the book in July last year and Singapore publisher Ethos Books launched the international version late last year.

Through these glimpses into his students' lives and their tormented relationships with their parents, O'Grady says he managed to find an explanation for Las Vegas - a city that even now disturbs and repels him.

"Parents - who people would usually look to for some sort of provision of basic security - were decaying in front of their children's eyes. And I saw then that answer to this mysterious, anonymous, anguished city, was that it was rotten in its domestic life itself," says O'Grady, who was born in Chicago, but lives in Poland.

"The city had instilled itself into the home and corrupted it. It had left the family, the most basic unit of society, disabled and dysfunctional."

Drawn by the bright lights of Las Vegas and its seductive promises of glamour and riches, some of its residents found themselves trapped by vice. They became addicts, high on alcohol, gambling, drugs and sex.

And as they indulged, their children were left to fend for themselves, O'Grady notes.

He speaks of the city with poetic rancour - he never planned on visiting it, he admits.

But he landed there by means of a writing fellowship from the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in 2009, and stayed on a second year to teach.

In this fantastical place selling wealth and glamour, the adoration of money, you had people living lives no one deserves to live - utterly innocent people.

AUTHOR TIMOTHY O'GRADY on the plight of children born into dysfunctional families in Las Vegas

"This book is the story of this city and why it exists. And Las Vegas exists because of human weaknesses and susceptibilities," he says.

"And as I worked on the book, I thought more of it as not just a story about Las Vegas, but also of human fallibility. Human fallibility became this city on the desert floor, became this gaudy, vulgar spectacle. It was built out of human wishes and weaknesses. And some people just weren't ready for it."

While some of their parents have fallen prey to Las Vegas - and never recovered - the children of Las Vegas whom O'Grady speaks to have stories of survival and hope to offer instead, he says.

Mr Kenneth Patrick - one of O'Grady's former students and now a businessman - recounts in the book how he struggled to survive in his dysfunctional family.

His father was the son of the mayor of Reno, a city in Nevada, and his mother, a beauty queen. But when they moved to Las Vegas, they lost themselves.

Mr Patrick's parents divorced and his mother would bring men home after her shifts at the bar, leaving him to look after himself and his sister when he was eight.

He then started selling himself for money and got hooked on drugs and alcohol.

But when he was diagnosed with Aids at the age of 21, he decided to turn over a new leaf and enrolled in a programme to wean himself off his addictions.

He now lives in California, where he works in real estate and does life coaching.

O'Grady says: "It's a story of transcendence. My students' stories were revelatory, truthful, important. In this fantastical place selling wealth and glamour, the adoration of money, you had people living lives no one deserves to live - utterly innocent people."

"They had contributed nothing to their problems. They just happened to be born in Las Vegas. And they've been fighting all their lives to survive. And the fight still continues. For many of them, they're still trying to rise above Las Vegas. They're trying not to become their parents."

•Children Of Las Vegas by Timothy O'Grady, with photographs by Steve Pyke, is available at www.ethosbooks.com.sg, Books Kinokuniya and MPH bookstores at $19.90.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2017, with the headline 'Hope and survival in Sin City'. Print Edition | Subscribe