Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Review: Storming Las Vegas

This is the extended text of the review of Storming Las Vegas that was published in The Miami Herald in May 2008. A few weeks later, this version was broadcast on the South Florida Arts Beat show on WLRN-FM, the Miami NPR station. I'll post the audio file (eventually), but the book is due for release soon as a paperback with new material, according to an e-mail I just received from the author, the amazing John Huddy.

Intro (Ed Bell): "Crime and criminality. Narrative styles. Steve Martin’s career turning-point, where he was convinced that he shouldn’t quit comedy. And the story of the Cuban military officer trained by the Russians who unleashed a brutal series of casino robberies on some of the biggest hotels in Las Vegas. Our reviewer, Richard Pachter, explains.

When you think about it, it’s pretty creepy. Why are otherwise law-abiding, peaceable people like you and me interested in violence and criminality? Solid citizens who wouldn’t even dream of squishing a stray palmetto bug seem inextricably attracted to bloody murder mysteries and detailed nonfiction accounts of criminally insane serial killers and their brutal sprees.

There’s no obvious answer but I’ll guess it’s because these acts present a crystallized, concentrated dose of extreme human behavior and emotion. In the hands of a really smart writer, they become more than just a recitation of the facts on a police blotter. The visceral aspects of the violence are also often less sensationalized and vulgar in this context.

Veteran TV producer and former Miami Herald writer John Huddy, while visiting Las Vegas, caught a whiff of a tale of a Cuban refugee — a Marielito, in fact — in custody after leading a succession of ultra-violent robberies at some of the city’s best-known casinos. Having started his career as a cops-and-courts reporter, Huddy knew that law enforcement personnel are usually fairly circumspect about their cases. Most prefer not to blab too much, but there was something about this case that piqued Huddy’s interest.

And Huddy’s interest is, itself, an interesting thing. Who is John Huddy?

For those of us who were Miami Herald readers in the mid-to-late 70s and early 80s, John Huddy was one of those writers like Edna Buchanan, Carl Hiassen and others who made that paper the legend that it still is today, to a great extent. Steve Martin recently gave props to Huddy in a memoir of his early stand-up comedy career, "Born Standing Up."

He wrote: "In Florida one night, it was balmy and I was able to take the audience outside into the street and roam around in front of the club, making wisecracks. I didn't quite know how to end the show. First I started hitchhiking; a few cars passed me by. Then a taxi came by. I hailed it and got in. I went around the block, returned and waved at the audience — still standing there — then drove off and never came back. The next morning I received one of the most crucial reviews of my life. John Huddy, the respected entertainment critic for the Miami Herald, devoted his entire column to my act. Without qualification, he raved in paragraph after paragraph, starting with HE PARADES HIS HILARITY RIGHT OUT INTO THE STREET, and concluded with: 'Steve Martin is the brightest, cleverest, wackiest new comedian around.' Oh, and the next night the club owner made sure all tabs had been paid before I took the audience outside.

"Roger Smith had told me that when he came to Hollywood from El Paso to be an actor, he had given himself six months to get work. The time elapsed, and he packed up his car, which was parked on Sunset Boulevard, where his final audition would be. Informed that he was not right for the job, he went out and started up his car. He was about to pull away, away to El Paso, when there was a knock on his windshield. 'We saw you in the hall. Would you like to read for us?' the voice said. He was then cast as the star of the hit television show, '77 Sunset Strip.'

"My review from John Huddy was the knock on the window just as I was about to get in my car and drive to a metaphorical El Paso, and it gave me a psychological boost that allowed me to nix my arbitrarily chosen 30-year-old deadline to reenter the conventional world. The next night and the rest of the week the club was full, all 90 seats.”

So Huddy has a lot of weight and credibility. Just do a Google search on him, if you like, and see.

"Storming Las Vegas" is an amazing and absorbing story. The leader of the gang, Jose Vigoa, was a Cuban national trained by the soviet military, who fought in Afghanistan and Angola as a Special Forces officer. He came to Florida during the Mariel boatlift, and joined a relative in Las Vegas. After several menial jobs, he dealt drugs, got caught and went to prison. Upon release, he formed a gang and in a 16-month period, hit five high-profile casinos: the MGM, the Desert Inn, New York-New York, the Mandalay Bay and the Bellagio, netting millions of dollars. Though the crimes were meticulously planned and Vigoa claimed to be attempting to avoid violence, two security guards were killed during one robbery. A task force was assembled, and well, Huddy had the cooperation of almost all of the major players in the story, including Vigoa and the Las Vegas police detective who led the investigation, so the story is well told and suspenseful.

Interestingly, all is recounted in the present tense, which an old writing guru once told me added immediacy and impact. Wonder if Huddy attended the same class… or taught the guru in the first place.

In addition to the great narrative, I learned some things about Huddy I didn’t know, including the fact that he grew up in Cuba before Castro at Gitmo, where his father ran the base’s telephone system.

"Storming Las Vegas" doesn’t provide any answers to the question of why crime fascinates non-criminals, but in addition to the story of Jose Vigoa, the book also brought me back to those days in the late seventies, when I’d get up every morning, trudge barefoot across the white gravel in my driveway on Loquat in the grove, crouch down, pick up my Herald and wonder what wonderful writing I’d soon be reading from Huddy, Hiaasen, Buchanan and the rest...

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