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Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas

Homeless drug- and gambling addicts, design flaws, crawfish, black widows, graffiti of inspiration and despair

Reviewed by Shawn Badgley, Fri., Oct. 26, 2007

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Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas

by Matthew O'Brien
Huntington Press, 282 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Someone should do a story on the reliable everyday reporters forgotten among the ergonomic chair cushions and plasticware-jammed drawers of desk-jockeying journalists who do more research by phone than telemarketers, the messengers fallen through the cracks between the public's mistrust of big media and the derivative shrill of the Web. Those helping us to understand rather than exploiting our need to know.

Matthew O'Brien could be one of the sources for the story, but to track him down recently, a reporter would have had to follow him into the storm drains crisscrossing Sin City; he wasn't in his office at Las Vegas CityLife, where he took a sabbatical from his editorship to explore poverty and urban planning at its literally lowest and darkest. What results is an anecdotal study five years in the making, full of unfiltered interviews and first-person accounts, regional detail and dry humor, and historical context and a storyteller's sense of timing (along with photographs by Danny Mollohan).

"The tunnel turned to the south," O'Brien writes early on. "The cobwebs fluttered in the wind. And the stream, though only two inches deep, roared like the Colorado River. 'I continue up the slope,' I narrated nervously into the mike. 'The footing is slick and visibility is low, about ten feet tops. I have no idea who or what lurks in the shadows. Another ex-con? A group of meth freaks? A pack of wild dogs? What in the hell am I doing in here?'"

It's a question the author struggles with for the duration of Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas. O'Brien grasps that his first book is shaping up to be more a series of observations and impressions than a groundbreaking work of advocacy and analysis. He worries that it lacks "perspective," that there's no end point, that there's indeed no point to his reporting at all, missing the point entirely: Part of what makes good reporters is that they don't have one. They just lay it out there. They show us what they found.

O'Brien finds homeless drug- and gambling addicts, design flaws, crawfish, black widows, graffiti of inspiration and despair, and his bearings. He brings back word. It's a courageous, sincere, and small-scale effort – after all, "William 'Skeets' Miller won the Pulitzer Prize for crawling into Sand Cave and interviewing [Floyd] Collins," he writes; "I'd be lucky to place in the annual Nevada Press Association awards (which were once held in a bingo parlor in Pahrump)" – the kind of stuff that keeps us aware of what's actually going on in the world.

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