BY MICHAEL VENTURA You'd think a town

would hesitate to call itself "The Gateway to Death" -- okay, it's "The Gateway to Death Valley," but I can't absorb the "valley." "Death" and "gateway" are so strong, they're all I see. Maybe it's just me.

The town is Baker, California, situated 60-odd miles south of the hottest place on earth; 85 miles west of Las Vegas; and on the rim of a stretch of brutal nothing named the Devil's Playground. Baker claims the tallest thermometer in the world; you can read it from a mile off as you speed by on Interstate 15. On the last day of July, well after sundown, that thermometer read 117.

My '69 Chevy doesn't have air-conditioning, so I didn't need a thermometer to know the temperature. Everything radiated heat -- the steering wheel, the seat, the water bottle, my face. My eyes felt like burning stones in my head. The desert air sucked at the liquids in the flesh, and the flesh gave up its juices helplessly. Through my windows the wind was as warm as when you put your hand near a radiator. It carried the subtle scents of these endless, relentless distances that we have occupied without ever conquering -- we can ruin this country but we can't tame it. That is the secret of America and always has been, and the Mojave Desert keeps it for us.

I wasn't well. I didn't know it. The heat was shorting out the electrical pulses that keep the heartbeat stable. It has to do with potassium and water -- "electrolytes," as I've since learned. Mine were evaporating into the wind, but it would take a while to have effect. Without intention and without mercy, the desert was trying to kill me -- as it would any creature too stupid or distracted to observe its inflexible rules.

Let me speak of my distracted heart. It has fallen in love with Las Vegas, the way you fall in love with someone very beautiful and out of control who has nothing to give but shared madness.

I don't know if I can explain my attraction to Las Vegas in any other terms, except that the paradox of that improbable city in the midst of raw desert must speak to a confrontation of absolutes within me. The first time I saw it, its very strangeness seemed familiar -- perhaps because my people come from Sicily, and today's Vegas was created by tough Sicilians and Jews wise to the weaknesses of the heart. Their style, in which I was raised, shaped the place and haunts it still. Or maybe it's how the desert welcomes color -- for somehow the Mojave is the perfect background for neon. The land's harsh brights and darks; their always shifting hues; how you can see what is not there (mirages) -- this resonates with neon, and with roulette wheels, and with strippers and croupiers who leave their real names behind and invent new ones. The brutality of Vegas -- that, too, seems of the desert. The chance of sudden riches and sudden death. The cruelty with which both the desert and the city descend upon the weak (though both make a few of the weak strong). The nakedness in the strip joints, and on so many billboards, that resonates not only with the bare land, but with how soft and hard the Mojave looks by turns at different hours, and how utterly exposed a human body is in the desert. The vulnerability of those naked women amidst the glare, clothed in nothing but neon and sexual force, and the longing their bodies call forth from those who watch them -- it's dizzying, the lust, and how you see into the souls of both dancers and watchers alike, each seeming not to care how utterly they're exposed and how they expose one another. And when you watch the dancers, you see a harshness in human nakedness itself that is not so apparent in more familiar settings. And all the while millions of dollars swirl around you in a vertigo of money and color and sound -- souls beckoned, bought, and sold. And, for all this, the desert is a kind of enormous echo chamber.

It is a city where everything is permitted and anything can happen -- that is the how and why of Vegas. That is what it sells. A city that offers no protection, no assurances. Only promises and seductions. It is America unmasked, an underworld more complex than Hell -- a Hades where gods and spirits (who are on their own side, as in the ancient religions, not on ours) dance and challenge and invite. And... you can get a good Italian meal at four in the morning.

William Blake goaded us in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained... The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom... You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough." (Of course, he warned elsewhere that the price of wisdom is "everything one hath.") The heart goes wild with such thoughts, and beckons us to unlikely places. Which is all the reason I can give that I've written one novel about Las Vegas (The Death of Frank Sinatra, to be published next summer) and am writing another. That's why I was on the road. My heart sought the heat, because in the second novel the heat itself is a character. And my heart, as usual, didn't understand the full implication of what it was seeking.

The FAA hadn't yet outlawed the lasers that some casinos sprayed over the desert. When I crested the hill and saw Las Vegas in the valley, its mad neon glittering with such clarity in that driest of all airs, the black pyramid of the Luxor shot its bright white beam straight up -- it is said to be the brightest light in the world. Someone in a ship 10 miles out in space could read by the Luxor's light, they say. The Rio, its glowing red walls distinct from miles away, cast a green laser straight over my head. From another casino, purple beams shot in bursts in many directions far into the Mojave. Vegas pulsated like something about to burst. There was no boundary between the vast mystery of the desert and the manic surreality of the city.

I drove to the Rio, checked into a room on the 19th floor. One entire wall was a window, overlooking the northern end of the Strip and Downtown -- Treasure Island's huge skull, the Stardust, the Riviera, Circus Circus, and the unfinished tower of Vegas World, all blinked, glimmered, and flashed. I showered, dressed, ordered room-service. (I did not know that eating was dangerous now; my digestive process would use up what water my body had left.) I turned off the lights, the better to see the neon. I pulled a chair to the window-wall. Midnight -- early for Vegas. Plenty of time to go out, to let the city speak to me of what I would write, to coax it into telling me what the impulse of these books was really seeking. (Artists are rightly avoided because they will follow that impulse anywhere.) I sipped a beer and lit a cigarette, absorbing the pulse of Vegas in the stillness of the room. My heart began to go mad. Beat so hard, it was like being hit from inside my chest.

This is a story about life and death. About death reaching out, seductively, almost tenderly. But death is only tender by its own standards; no matter how light its touch, the living can't help but feel death's gentleness as a force beyond anything we know. Death is a trickster, and it sometimes reaches toward us without letting on whether it has come to instruct or to kill or both.

As when touched by love, my heart was taken not entirely by surprise. For the heart is a muscle and the heart is more. The ancients who credited that muscle with the source of our being may not have been wrong. It is the blood that feeds the brain, not the other way round; and it is to the heart that the blood answers. My heart had gone wild so many times, in love, in work, in beauty, in terror -- and as a muscle too, sometimes wrenching my body and my life with pain and irregularity, as it was doing now, conditions that sent me to doctors and hospitals. But wasn't all this a way of speaking? Wasn't it all a way of asking, "Are you alive enough today?" Wasn't it all a kind of dare?

For I think that God dares us to live -- and to die. I think that life is not a gift but a dare. I think that God dares us to be human beings. To wipe that frightened or complacent or habitual expression from our faces. And I think Death is only God's starkest, most frightening mask. It is a smiling mask, though not a human smile. I was frightened but giddy. I smiled back. I decided not to call 911 or anyone. I decided to spend the evening with Death -- that was my clear, though maybe not very bright, thought -- to take the dare, and accept whatever verdict came. I've been told since that "electrolyte imbalance" impairs judgment. My judgment was impaired, all right, and I half knew it. But I had come to Vegas to play for high stakes, hadn't I? If this was the game being offered, I thought I'd best play it. The odds were with the house, but that's true anywhere and every night.

My heart paused a long time, then started pounding violently. I got very, very frightened. I knew how stupid I was being, but I'd crossed some crazy line and I couldn't cross back. Couldn't even find where the line was.

(continued in two weeks)

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