Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2017

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Jon Ralston recalls the brilliance of the UNLV history professor who wrote so wonderfully about what shaped this city

The first words in "Neon Metropolis" sum up Hal Rothman's oeuvre.

"It is hard to write a book about the town you live in with detachment and passion," was how Rothman, the UNLV history professor who died this week, began his brilliant book published five years ago.

It may have been difficult, but no one could have inhabited that paradox as did Rothman, who also wrote a column for the Las Vegas Sun. He possessed a rare ability to step back from the city and see it for what it was and what it wasn't, while simultaneously infusing his prose with a vitality bursting with his love for his home.

Indeed, the adjective "energetic" is the one most applied to Rothman. It exuded from every pore, from every page of his writing. He was, like his prose, so alive.

It is an excruciating irony that this kinetic man, who rode bicycles for miles and exulted in the competition, should have that energy slowly drained from his body by ALS, his life force slowly sapped, his voice gradually quieted.

Rothman, only 48 when Lou Gehrig's disease cruelly claimed him, saw things nobody else saw, leavening his piercing insights with facts no one else bothered to print or understood. Only Rothman could write: "In 1999, Las Vegas surpassed Mecca as the most visited place on earth." Let that one sink in.

No one who has ever written about Las Vegas so smartly put the city into context as Rothman did, especially in "Neon Metropolis," where he combined his innate gifts for observation with a writing style that conveyed both his detachment and his passion.

In a couple of sentences from that book, Rothman neatly put the postmodern Las Vegas into stark relief: "While small towns around the nation withered after 1945, Las Vegas became a city - at odds with the rest of the nation to be sure, a real city nonetheless - and then the rest of the nation caught up, tried it out, and found out that it had a lot more in common with Las Vegas than most would care to admit."

I urge people who have lived here for years, who are newcomers, who are Vegasophiles or who are Vegas-haters to read "Neon Metropolis." Unlike so many books about Las Vegas, it sings with a resonance most drab retellings of the city's past and present cannot remotely approach.

Some examples from "Neon Metropolis" of how Rothman could with his words and insight put the city into perspective:

I didn't know Rothman well. He appeared on my TV program; I appeared on his radio show. But we always liked each other, always had a mutual respect. I remember ribbing him about being quoted everywhere and even sallying forth on topics I thought he knew little about. Like anyone else who writes about Las Vegas, I often read his quotes or his writing and said to myself, "I wish I had said it that way."

The media, local and national, loved Rothman not just because he was so accessible and so well versed in so many aspects of Las Vegas, but also because he was so clever and witty.

And now, as friends and admirers alike mourn Rothman's passing, the neon metropolis he loved with that detached passion is now short one incandescent, shining light.