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Review | Chris Bohjalian’s ‘The Princess of Las Vegas’ finds drama on the Strip

The curse of writing about Las Vegas is that it’s hard to avoid clichés about luck or chance or the roll of the dice. And the fact is, that’s the provenance of tourists anyway; locals don’t care much about such things. They know they live in a city built by mobsters to rip off rubes. If residents want to gamble — and most don’t — they hit up the casinos off the Strip, where at least you don’t have to pay to park. Those joints are the kinds of places you used to read about in noir novels, back when the edge of town was the open desert and those casinos were your last stop before the proverbial dark ride. These days, the edge of town means greenbelts and master-planned communities, places that even sound pleasant: Summerlin, Centennial Hills, Green Valley. It’s hard to fear you’re going to get whacked in view of a Pottery Barn. But there’s still a lingering touch of something insidious about the place, and Chris Bohjalian has a track record of making places come to full life in his novels. So when his latest, “The Princess of Las Vegas,” But the next chapter begins with a single word: “Luck.” The word is our introduction to Crissy Dowling, a 35-year-old Princess Diana impersonator who performs a twice-nightly cabaret show based on Diana’s life at Buckingham Palace. The show is replete with songs by Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield and Bonnie Tyler, but the overall effect is more like when “Hal Holbrook did Mark Twain.” The show is called “Diana, Candle in the Darkness,” which is both amusing and sad; if this is luck, good or bad, the whole notion needs to be reevaluated. Crissy lives in a suite at Buckingham Palace, has her own cabana and has been sleeping with a powerful senator, but she’s also bulimic and pops pills like Skittles, and now her bosses at the Palace keep dying. First it was Richie Morley in the fake suicide and then, days later, his brother Artie, by a questionable hanging. Problem is, the last person Artie talked to was Crissy. And he didn’t seem like he was preparing to fold, or hang. Far from it. He was worried about a hostile business takeover. “They sent me a message when they killed Richie,” he tells her, “but I’m not surrendering.” If that’s not enough, Crissy’s estranged doppelgänger sister, Betsy, has just moved to Las Vegas, along with Betsy’s newly adopted 13-year-old hacker daughter, Marisa. They’re joining Betsy’s new boyfriend, Frankie, an executive at an obviously dubious crypto outfit called Futurium, which is positioned to buy Buckingham Palace. Convenient. If this sounds borderline zany, it is. But Bohjalian has long been able to elevate these kinds of tales by writing about inward madness as well as outward. He draws characters with whom we immediately empathize, like Cassandra Bowden in “The Flight Attendant,” whose addictions and every-woman approach to an international conspiracy make us trust her even when we shouldn’t. He also tends to employ a deep entrenchment in setting — Tanzania in “The Lioness,” for instance, or Colonial Boston in “Hour of the Witch” — to beget fast-moving action. The heat burns, the wind chafes, the witches get rounded up, verisimilitude becomes narrative, and you buy the world. Here, however, Bohjalian lacks his trademark acuity. His Las Vegas is both geographically and tangibly hard to recognize, the aesthetic of the Strip more like it was 30 years ago, when meals were cheap and mediocre, not exorbitant and Michelin-starred; sold-out showrooms were filled with Liberace and Sinatra impersonators, not U2 and Adele; when organized crime syndicates could still plausibly buy into casinos and, more saliently, when the city wasn’t one of the most surveilled in the world. That Bohjalian plays loose with all of these facts doesn’t ruin the story, but it does give one the sense that he parachuted into the backdrop. “Princess” could have taken place in Branson, Mo., and the story would have been the same. The core concern here is not place but tone: Crissy is living in a black comedy, and everyone else is in a thriller. That mismatch eventually saps drama and mystery. Late in the novel, for instance, when Crissy is faced with a mounting death toll, including the cryptic loss of a lover, a friend offers her a gun and her response is: “You ever read Chekhov?” I asked. “What about him?” “This is a paraphrase, but Chekhov said if you reveal a gun in the first act, it best go off by the third.” It’s a playful reference, and surrounded by the violence other characters are experiencing and Crissy’s own deepening despair, it feels like a misstep. The novel also features some anachronistic ancillary plot points, including the blackmail of a politician over extramarital proclivities: That may have worked in “The Godfather,” but that was before a presidential candidate allegedly paid off a porn star and still swept the Bible Belt. We see this story through alternating points of view — including Betsy’s and, in brief interludes, Marisa’s — but Crissy’s sections could be their own book. She’s a fascinating character, a woman subsumed by childhood trauma who has taken on the life of her famous look-alike, right down to mannerisms and speech patterns, smiling flirtatiously from beneath her bangs, Diana alive again. Bohjalian’s writing about the weirdness and pain of Crissy’s life is powerful, even at times audacious. If only the rest of the novel had been as daring. Tod Goldberg is the author of 14 books of fiction, including, most recently, “Gangsters Don’t Die.” He is a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. The Princess of Las Vegas The Princess of Las Vegas By Chris Bohjalian Doubleday. 381 pp. $29 We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

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