cover image The Madonna of Las Vegas

The Madonna of Las Vegas

Gregory Blake Smith, . . Three Rivers, $13 (288pp) ISBN 978-1-4000-8186-8

With its faux Eiffel Tower, replica Gotham City and copycat Venice, Las Vegas is arguably the most postmodern city in the world. And in Gregory Blake Smith's intelligent, high-octane new novel, it's painter Cosmo Dust's job to add one more layer of ersatz reality to the city's over-the-top veneer of kitsch—he is charged with creating a copy of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Las Vegas's Golden Calf casino, but has resigned, paralyzed with grief, after the murder of his wife, Cathy. The casino owner, known as the pope of Las Vegas, repeatedly threatens Cosmo with cement shoes if he doesn't finish the job; Cosmo then becomes ensnared in a murder investigation that may or may not involve the pope of Las Vegas's daughter (who may or may not be the actual daughter of Pope John Paul I). Using Las Vegas as a brilliant backdrop, Smith pushes and pulls his characters around within a lengthy meditation on what's real and what isn't. And while he weaves an engrossing and funny tale and writes terrific dialogue, by the end, he has layered on so many big ideas ("possibility clouds," "counter-Earth," "non-Cartesian counterfactuals," etc.) that the structure of the story begins to collapse under its own weight. (On sale Aug. 23)