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Punch Drunk 

P Moss scores points with his Vegas novel but can't deliver literary clincher

Las Vegas' budding downtown tech sector is on the minds and in the online columns of the digerati, or computer-industry elite. Thanks to non-gaming employer Zappos and the company's CEO Tony Hsieh, there's investment money being doled out. Walking around the city's Fremont East district and hearing people talk, one feels caught in the boom of an old Southwest mining town—except it's Internet start-up kids panning for gold instead of grizzled dudes with pans.

Another explosion is reverberating in a tourist town that, until recently, has done little more than provide soft landings for the downward-sliding careers of pop singers, comedians and hard-rock bands. Since 2010, CityLife Books, the publishing imprint of alternative newsweekly Las Vegas CityLife, has been quietly restructuring the city's literary landscape. (Disclosure: CityLife Books once paid me to contribute a nonfiction essay to an anthology.) While Vegas increasingly becomes a setting for works by native authors with national profiles—Claire Vay Watkins' Battleborn, Charles Bock's Beautiful Children—there's also a serious contribution being made by writers who, by misfortune or choice, never left Sin City for the East Coast.

CityLife Books flagship author P Moss runs a bar in New York called Double Down Saloon (he launched the first one in Vegas 20 years ago), but his tough, blue-collar, black-noir prose style shows that his aesthetic wasn't forged in the sweater-vested embrace of an Ivy League creative-writing program. Moss administers words the way a great bartender pours drinks—generously yet unfussily. His debut story collection—an assortment of vignettes, actually—Blue Vegas earned attention in places like the Los Angeles Times and some positive regional reviews.

Until a couple months ago, though, it remained to be seen if Moss could produce a powerful novel. His second book, Vegas Knockout, comes close.

Moss' handicap is self-imposed. Knockout is subtitled "a novel in stories," which is, to borrow a bookmaking term, a hedge-bet. In other words, Knockout could be a novel, but the author won't commit to the endeavor. Did intention or desperation mother this hybrid? We don't know. Like an off-Strip magician, Moss doesn't want you to analyze his mechanics—in his case, conflict and plot. He asks to you to go along with his act, which is admittedly fun in a low-rent way.

Vegas is, at its core, a low-rent city, and Moss is a magician when it comes to pulling lowlifes out of a hat. Interestingly, many of his lowest characters aren't even natives. Consider 33-year-old writer Lawford, who arrives from New York with a Rolling Stone magazine assignment to cover the weekend's big fight at MGM Grand Garden Arena. Lawford gets sidetracked into exploring a metaphysical question at a casino bar:

Lawford continued to scribble in a private shorthand. What motivates a con man? Is it a chance for to get something for nothing? Or is it simply in his DNA? He looked around and wondered if the trappings of casino culture begged an even bigger question. Does Las Vegas have a soul?

The reporter's question is answered by his own failings. Seduced by Vegas' allure, he ends up violating journalistic ethics by placing a bet on the fight and then gets tangled up with, you guessed it, a hooker. Whom he happily introduces to strangulation sex.

This promising setup is derailed by Moss' failsafe, fallback specialties—the vignette and the character sketch. It's easy to see why. Moss is funny and trenchant when introducing (mid-book) a new demimonde and spontaneous flash floods alike:

Brutal November rain punished the city. A surprise purification that provoked power outages, crippled traffic, and drowned small animals. Gutters flushed east to west and west to east, wreaking havoc at the valley's lowest point, the Las Vegas Strip. But if the uncompromising downpour happened to quarantine you between the sheets with a new love, it was the perfect storm.

From there we're a fly on the bedroom wall rented by an on-the-skids comedian and his new love. She sends him a singing clown telegram; he has the new jewelry he gave her boosted by a cop-impersonating buddy. It results in a misunderstanding at once horrifying and hilarious. Moss also subjects us to Vegas', um, poodle-fucking 1 percent; a Cantonese restaurateur who ruins his culinary rep by winning a slot jackpot; and college-chums experimenting with a call-girl smartphone app. It's all dazzlingly seedy, and Moss is smart enough to let his characters' actions answer Lawford's question: Vegas is only as soulful as the people who visit the place.

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