I am sitting in the back of a Lincoln Continental limousine with Jedediah Purdy. Our car is the finest vessel in the fleet of the Hotel Bellagio, Steve Wynn’s $2 billion casino on Las Vegas Boulevard, the street best known by its simple nickname: “The Strip.” The Lincoln is pearl-black with eight axles, tiny pinpoints of opera lighting, acres of tinted bulletproof glass, a bolt of plush carpeting separating Jedediah Purdy and me from Stanley, our driver.
In fact, Jedediah Purdy and I aren’t sitting in the back at all. We’re sitting behind the back, in a hot tub that’s perched where the trunk usually goes. With us are two new friends, Shannon and Marcie, both visions in amazing bikinis, who have seen hundreds of times what I’ve never seen before tonight: this achingly slow procession of colors and lights. We’re cruising past the undulating water fountain, the seeping volcano, the Eiffel Tower, the Manhattan skyline, the pyramid boasting several thousand hotel rooms behind a Sphinx with a clumsy nose job.
Shannon is asking Jedediah Purdy to read from Chapter Six of “For Common Things,” his new book about the crisis in American thought. Jedediah Purdy’s book rails against irony as the virus that’s sickening American culture, and I suppose he has a point. He’s an idealistic young man — though not as young as one might think — and he’s full of hope and eager optimism. Just the sight of him makes you want to give him the apple from your lunchbox, or maybe your Mylar pouch of Capri Sun fruit punch — even if it means eating your peanut butter sandwich without anything to wash it down. For Jedediah Purdy, you’d do that.
Jedediah Purdy takes a sip of Veuve Cliquot, kisses Shannon, and reaches over for a waterlogged copy of his book. As he’s about to start reading, we reach a stoplight, and all motion from the sidewalk stops. Funny thing about Vegas: it’s so quiet outside. We’re in front of Caesar’s Palace, and we can hear crickets chirping in the hedges. And then there’s a scream.
“Jedediah!” a girl shrieks from the sidewalk. “Jedediah, we love you! Las Vegas loves you!”
“Love you too, sweetie,” he calls back. He raises one fist, like an African-American Olympic athlete on the platform in Mexico City. The book is in his other hand, partly submerged in the bubbling tub. “And I loooove Vegas!”
“Wooooo!” screams the crowd on the sidewalk.
Jedediah Purdy smiles, but only for a moment. Then his eyes narrow. I look over to see the target of his wrath.
“See that hotel?” he says.
We all look in the direction of his finger at a garish building with canals and turrets and porticoes. It’s the size of several airplane hangars stacked on top of one another, but looks a hell of a lot more impressive than that.
“The Venetian,” says Jedediah Purdy. He tips back his flute and swallows everything in it. “It used to be the Sands, until they knocked it down a couple years ago.”
As he says this, a huge screen in front of the building replays the Sands’s leveling, falling in on itself like a castle on the beach. Jedediah Purdy seems angry, but it’s not long before the rims of his eyes go red.
“Dean and Frank played the Sands,” says Jedediah Purdy. He is crying now. “Things were different then. Things were so simple.”
Jedediah Purdy is 24, so technically, he doesn’t know about Dean and Frank firsthand. But he’s a serious man, and a serious student — a student of life, of love, of earnest notions. And he’s listened to all the stories.
Dean and Sammy wandering through a seven-day bender at the Oasis. The Chairman calling the cops on his own party at the Nugget. Peter Lawford spending a night in the pokey after taking a swing at a cop at the Flamingo.
The Flamingo’s a hell of a long way from New Haven, where Jedediah Purdy lives now, and even further from the West Virginia cabin where he grew up. But this is his sixth trip to Vegas this year, and he’s knows the place like the Appalachian foothills, its chilly creeks and crispy leaves.
I’d assumed Vegas was the furthest thing from Jedediah Purdy’s mind — or would have been, until I spent a week with him for this article. A lot has changed in the past few months. “For Common Things” was published to great fanfare and controversy, and within two weeks, Jedediah Purdy could not walk down the street in New Haven without getting his hair tousled by a well-meaning undergrad.
They believe in him, those undergrads: believe in his hope for sincerity in a cruel, desensitized world. Tonight, we’re trying our hands at blackjack at the Excalibur, the glorious candied castle at the northern end of the Strip, when four beefy guys with animal balloons tied around their heads stroll up to the table. There’s a young Elvis and an old Elvis, one wearing a pink sportcoat and black trousers and the other decked out in a white sequined jumpsuit. The other two guys are wearing Sigma Chi sweatshirts.
They’re drunk. I smell trouble.
But I’m wrong. There nothing but good will here. Earnestness. Sincerity.
“Jedediah,” says one. He’s shaking with nervousness. “Um, we sincerely hope for you that luck be a lady tonight.”
“Thanks, guys,” says Jedediah Purdy. He never takes his eyes off the table.
Nine hours later, Jedediah Purdy and I are eating cheeseburgers at the Tiki Lounge, a Polynesian joint with plenty of straw matting and no windows. Shannon and Marcie are back at the Bellagio: Shannon in my room tonight, and Marcie in his. But he was itching to play some cards, and besides, he wanted a bite. It’s almost six o’clock in the morning.
“Dude,” says Jedediah Purdy. “Did you know prostitution is actually illegal within the city limits of Las Vegas?”
I didn’t know that, and I tell him so.
He smiles slyly, and mutters: “Breakin’ the law, breakin’ the law.” He grabs some fries off my plate. I ask him about how he likes his new friend Marcie. He gets all somber again. “I like her. She’s really nice. So sincere. And this morning she said, ‘I sincerely hope you’re enjoying yourself,’ and then she gave me the most amazing blow job.”
Jedediah Purdy is ahead many, many thousands of dollars — has been all week. Every time the croupier rakes the dice across the felt, he tosses them back, and they ride the edge like a skater in an ESPN competition before settling on seven. Sometimes four and three, sometimes five and two, sometimes six and one. But always seven.
It’s eleven o’clock in the morning, a Wednesday. Jedediah Purdy and I sat down at this table fifty-three hours ago, coming straight from the Tiki Lounge, and I’ve had nothing but Pepsi and amphetamines since we got here. I’m back sixty-three thousand dollars. But Jedediah Purdy’s made up the difference — and then some. And he looks fresh, like he just stepped out of a steambath.
Jedediah Purdy is sipping some iced tea from a mason jar. He is tranquility surrounded by chaos. Chaos in the crowd, chaos in the carpets, chaos in the air conditioning. There’s an ever-shifting itinerant population surrounding the table. Jedediah Purdy has thrown nothing but sevens for the past 36 hours, and there’s a low murmur of appreciation every time he tosses the dice with a yawn. He looks up and waves, a fragrant Cohiba smoldering in his hand.
The croupier smiles. She says, “That brings you to five hundred thousand dollars, Mr. Purdy. On behalf of the Bellagio, I’d like to sincerely congratulate you, sir.”
Jedediah Purdy slides a hundred-dollar chip across the table to her. “Thanks for the good cheer, kid,” he says, which is funny to me, because the croupier is old enough to be my ex-wife. The crowd applauds. Someone whistles. I hear someone say, “This kid is sincerely hot.”
And then, the wind leaves our sails. A Nevada State Gaming Officer is at our side. “Sir, could I see some i.d. please?”
I’m about to protest — “Don’t you know who this is? The world’s foremost philosopher on decency, the young man who’s defending us against the banal sentiments that have attacked our culture like a virus!”
But Jedediah Purdy just waves me down and pulls out his wallet. The officer looks at it, then hands it back to him. “I’m sincerely sorry, Mr. Purdy,” she says. “It’s just — well, you’re so youthful and sweet, I just wanna eat you right up!”
“No problem, toots,” he says, and slaps her behind. “And call me Jedediah.” The officer giggles like a schoolgirl, reddening, and backs away from the table.
Shannon and Marcie heave a sigh of relief.
“I was kind of afraid to ask you about that,” Marcie says.
“I didn’t want to say, but you look like my baby brother,” says Shannon.
“Marcie, Shannon,” says Jedediah Purdy. “You two grew up out here, in Las Vegas. But I want to tell you something.” He leans closer. “So I look like a kid. That’s fine. Because as long as I’m playing the tables, Vegas is my town.” He tosses the dice. He pulls another seven, and another stack of chips. The crowd applauds.
He jabs his chest with his thumb. “My town,” he says.
Jedediah Purdy puffs on his Cohiba. A halo of smoke uncurls from his mouth and encircles his head. It’s there for a few seconds, and then it vanishes.
And then it’s several minutes later, or several hours, or maybe even several days. It’s like that in Vegas. The casino protects you from yourself, your screaming kids at home, your ex-wife filing a paternity suit. Vegas pumps oxygen into the air, and it feeds you cocktails all night, and it hides the clocks so you don’t wonder what the hell happened to the outside world.
In Las Vegas tonight, George Carlin’s playing Paris, and Siegfried and Roy are at the Mirage. Back home, at the Bellagio, there’s always Cirque du Soleil. But Jedediah Purdy wants to take a ride.
And so we go, the four of us. Back in the hot tub again. Stanley hits the gas.
“Hey,” says Jedediah Purdy. “What would you think if I told you I was gonna buy the Venetian with my proceeds from the casino?”
I tell him he’s about a billion and a half short. He throws his head back and roars with laughter. “Guys — Shannon, Marcie,” he says. He looks so serious.
“You wanna know what I think of common things? What I really think?”
The three of us watch him. I hold my breath.
Jedediah Purdy reaches over and yanks a bottle of champagne from a bucket of ice. He flicks the cork with a bang. The sweet suds spill over his hand, and the cork soars into the night, as high as the Eiffel Tower gleaming across the street from us.
He looks down at the bottle in his left hand and the book in his right. Then he gazes up at Marcie and Shannon and me, one at a time, and then at the lights, millions of them everywhere.
“I looooove the common things.”
Then the light turns green, and the car begins to drift.
“And I really mean it.”li