Still Life Las Vegas: A Novel

Still Life Las Vegas: A Novel


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When Walter Stahl was five-years-old, his mother drove away in the family's blue Volvo and never came back. Now seventeen, living in the dregs of Las Vegas, taking care of his ailing father and marking time in a dead-end job along the Strip, Walter's life so far has been defined by her absence. He doesn't remember what she looks like; he's never so much as seen a photograph but, still, he looks for her among the groups of tourists he runs into every day, allowing himself the dim hope that she might still be out there, somewhere.

But when Walter meets Chrysto and Acacia, a brother and sister working as living statues at the Venetian Hotel, his world cracks wide open. With them he discovers a Las Vegas he never knew existed and, as feelings for Chrysto develop, a side of himself he never knew he had. At the same time, clues behind his mother's disappearance finally start to reveal themselves, and Walter is confronted with not only the truth about himself, but also that of his family history.

Threading through this coming-of-age story are beautiful, heart-wrenching graphic illustration, which reveal the journey of Walter's mother Emily: how she left everything to chase a vision of Liberace across the country; and how Walter's father Owen went searching for her amongst the gondolas of the Venetian Hotel.

In James Sie's debut novel, Still Life Las Vegas, the magical collides with the mundane; memory, sexual awakening and familial ties all lead to a place where everything is illuminated, and nothing is real.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250055668
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/11/2015
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 9.20(w) x 6.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

JAMES SIE was born and raised in Summit, NJ., the son of immigrant parents, a Chinese father and an Italian mother. After attending Northwestern University, he lived in Chicago for many years, working as an actor and an award-winning playwright of literary adaptations. Currently, he lives in Los Angeles with his husband and son, where he works as a voiceover artist in animation, most notably in Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness; King of the Hill and Jackie Chan Adventures. Still Life Las Vegas is his debut novel, featuring graphic illustrations by Sungyoon Choi.

Sungyoon Choi is an illustrator and a comic book artist living in Los Angeles, CA. She studied Illustration as Visual Essay at School of Visual Arts MFA program. She illustrated the graphic novel American Widow published by Villard in 2008 and Mission in a Bottle published by Crown Business.

Read an Excerpt

Still Life Las Vegas

A Novel

By James Sie, Sungyoon Choi

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 James Sie
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-05566-8



She drove the blue Volvo station wagon away from Vee's house with a sober determination, like it was a lame horse she was leading out of the barn. She was going to drive both the car and herself over the nearest cliff, or, rather, it being Wisconsin, the nearest steep embankment. But sailing south along I-94, in the early morning before rush hour, she found she couldn't let go of the Volvo and she couldn't let go of the road, and the highway racing before her seemed to offer a faster route to oblivion than sailing off into some moderately inclined culvert. All might still be lost, in time. There were other opportunities up ahead to smash into and through some guardrail on her journey. Colorado, now there were some cliffs worth driving over.

But she needed speed, more speed, and the ballast in the car was too heavy to let her fly down the highway, no matter what the speedometer was registering. So she twisted her upper body like a contortionist and managed to snake her right arm around and under the baby car seat behind her in order to unshackle it from the upholstery, and with a desperate, sudden yank which would cause her a good deal of shoulder pain later that night, she managed to hoist the seat over the gear shift and partly into her lap. Moments later it was pushed clumsily (understandable at ninety-five miles an hour) out the passenger-side window. It bounced twice along the highway like a skipping stone before skidding to rest on the side of the road.

Three minutes later the second car seat, toddler-size, followed.

(The two abandoned car seats were accounted for later that day; the second one landed in the middle of a lane, causing the rush-hour traffic delay that Owen heard on the clock radio as he was trying to will himself awake; the other was discovered and identified by Vee in her car, just outside Racine. Neither was saved.)

And for a time after, Emily did feel lighter, her mind clear, even excited, and her breathing deepened for the first time in almost five weeks. This continued until just past Madison. Approaching the slowdown that was inbound Chicago traffic, she began noticing through her rearview mirror the imprints of the car seats in the upholstery. Also, a small teething ring, a scattering of Cheerios, and a grimy diaper rag.

The backseat, the entire backseat, was gone by the time she hit Iowa.


Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. That's what they say, but I'm not so sure. I've learned my history, and I go on repeating it. I repeat it, on average, eight times a day, five days a week. Time off for lunch.

It's not my own history. I'm a minion of Viva Las Vegas! — the historical-museum-slash-tourist-trap now in its twelfth shabby year on Fremont Street. I made the mistake of finishing my high school coursework a full seven months before the end of the year; I was in such a hurry to eject myself from that particular hell that I forgot there was nowhere for me to go once I got out. So now I'm waiting out my time before graduation here in my own little neon Purgatory. Not Hell, but close. Hell with a waxwork Elvis Presley.

Viva Las Vegas! is also Purgatory for most of the people who throw down their ten bucks to the King and enter, a good place to do penance until the hangover clears and they're ready for the slots. It's dark, quiet by Vegas standards. I think that's why this place has hung on as long as it has: it's hopelessly outdated, so lacking in any kind of glamour or excitement or even decent lighting that it feels innocent. It's so tacky it's virginal.

I've got the first shift of the day, and I'm late. The red digital readout in the lobby has been displaying TOUR IN 1 MINUTE! for about ten. I throw on my dreaded red vest, a striped polyester number that flaps around my skinny body like wings. There also used to be these tiny striped straw hats we had to wear that made me look like a giant anorexic Disney penguin, but luckily the tops of those have, mysteriously and simultaneously, all been punched out.

Yrma behind the ticket desk has corralled the first group. She sighs heavily when she sees me coming through the curtains and shifts her weight to the other side of the desk, where she can punch a button that changes the readout above her. The slack-jawed Yrma (pronounced EAR-ma) has the coloring and consistency of burnt caramel pudding, and she moves at the pace a burnt caramel pudding might move, were it mobile. The digital readout changes from TOUR IN 1 MINUTE! to TOUR STARTING NOW!!! — the red words blinking urgently, doing their best to justify the two additional exclamation points.

Usual crowd. Three seniors, a mom with a stroller looking to beat the heat, five Korean tourists, and a teenage couple — locals who, thank the gods, I don't recognize from school. They're wearing faded T's and torn jeans, and their arms hang limply over each other like they've both just been saved from drowning. The guy smirks at me. His eyes are dark and hard. The girl just pouts and nuzzles into Smirky Boy's collarbone.

I take my position by the turnstile. "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Viva Las Vegas. Right this way." We're supposed to draw out the "Vee" part of "Viva" so that it builds an excitement — "Veeeeva Las Vegas!" — and punctuate that with a big sweep of the arm up into the air. I can't bring myself to do it. None of the tour guides can, except for Kenny, who's new and operates at three exclamation points at all times. His rousing tours are known to cause fainting, mass suicides, and bleeding from the eyes. He'll be assistant manager in no time.

"Watch your step, please." The guests file past me into the first room, led by the three seniors, who are from Texas, I'm guessing. Their matching pastel I LOVE TEXAS T-shirts kind of give it away. The five Koreans turn out to be two couples together and one Asian woman by herself, who's got the kind of hair that's constantly flapping over the front of her face, and dark glasses. She stares down at the floor and looks away from me as she pushes through the metal bar. Could be thirty, could be sixty. Could be the right age. Could be ... I get that old, reflexive urge to stare her down, catalog her face, but I brush it away. Childish habit, like biting your nails or wetting the bed.

"Nice vest," Smirky Boy cracks as he saunters through. Whatever. I'm not the one wasting twenty bucks. Just wait. He who smirks last, and all.

Once they've clicked past the turnstile it's the point of no return. Anyone who has bought a ticket because of Elvis beckoning in the window or the sound track of him singing "Viva Las Vegas" in the lobby is going to be sadly disappointed. Elvis is not part of this tour. Elvis would rather have puked up fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches than be part of this sad, sad pilgrimage.

I'm part shepherd, part guide, leading my sheep to each display and making sure no one strays from the path. The first diorama starts us off in 1829. A mannequin with dark hair and a conquistador helmet stands, one hand resting on a plastic palm tree, the other shielding his eyes from the baby spotlight shining directly on his face. There's a dusty rubber snake hissing at his feet. Sand all around. Here I go. "On Christmas Day 1829, Rafael Rivera set foot on an oasis in what would be known as the Las Vegas Valley. He was a part of a party led by Antonio Armijo, looking for their way to Los Angeles. 'Las Vegas' means 'the Meadow' in Spanish. ..."

Rafael's supposed to be scanning the horizon of this brave new world. This is the extent of his movement: his head turns thirty degrees to the left. His head turns thirty degrees to the right. His hand doesn't even move with his forehead, it just stays frozen in a permanent salute position.

But the sheep are still into him. Lots of murmuring, lots of "oh!"s and head nods. Cameras click away at Rafael, at the sand and the tree. Everyone's carried away by the emptiness because of the promise it holds. They can't wait to see the magic that turns all this sand into casinos. Everyone except for the teenagers, who hang in the shadows and snicker to each other, and the Asian woman with the sunglasses, who's not looking at Rafael, either. What's she here for?

Next room: Mormonville. "In 1855, Mormons began settling in the area to protect the mail route from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. The fort you see in front of you is a replica of one made by the Mormons out of clay-and-grass bricks known as adobe. ..." Mormonville gets a few dull head nods. The Railroad Town display gets less. The sheep are getting tired of all this dirt and dust. Where's the vice? they wonder. Mormon life is not what you'd call electrifying. Or maybe it's my presentation. I'll bet Kenny whips them into a frenzy. Adobe forts!!! Lead mining!!!

Still no questions, except one. As we pass out of 1905 into the next room, one of the women in the Korean foursome hurries up to me. "Excuse me," she whispers, already smiling in apology, "ehm, would you mind, to tell me please, are you, ehm, Filipino? Japanese?"

This is not an uncommon question. Asians can't figure me out, and it drives them

This is not an uncommon question. Asians can't figure me out, and it drives them nuts. I'm like Asian, but stretched tall. Long body, small features. Curly dark hair. Like one of those long-necked aliens, with a wig. I get Mongolian a lot, or Siberian; once I got albino Samoan. That was creative. Sometimes, if they're rude, I'll tell them I'm Swedish, just to watch their heads explode.

"Vietnamese," I tell her, because she's decent. "Half Vietnamese."

"Thank you!" the woman gasps, like I've handed her a present. She scurries back to the group and sets off a flurry of Korean whispers. They can't believe it. Vietnamese? Impossible! What must the other half be? Giraffe? I'm worth the price of admission, right there.

And what about her, the one with the sunglasses? Is she wondering, too? But when I glance back she's already passing me on her way to the next room. She's small. Her hair's got some gray in it, I think. Hard to tell in this light. She'd be the right age. She could be Vietnamese, too. She could be. I shake my head, but the words "she could be" play over and over again like a stupid nursery rhyme you can't get erased from your mind.

A life-size animatronic Bugsy Siegel welcomes the sheep to the MegaResort room, which gets a big reaction. Cameras start clicking again. It's a miniature replica of the Strip right before the end of the millennium, waist high and encased in Plexiglas you can walk around. All the old monuments are there: the Eiffel Tower, the canals, the Pyramid, and the Empire State Building. The resort names roll off my tongue like gold coins: Luxor. Bellagio. Monte Carlo.

"And please check out our Wall of Fame, featuring some of Las Vegas's best and brightest entertainers." I've never heard of most of them. They all smile with their mouths open too wide, like they're waiting for someone to pitch something in — grapes, or quarters. Liberace's there, at the end. I know him, of course. He's not only a part of Las Vegas history, he's part of mine.

This is my favorite room, because it's the Las Vegas of my parents. I can replay their doomed history here in three dimensions. It's like a giant, unfolding pop-up book, spread out to tell my father's story of the time my mother was lost, and found, and lost again. In miniature, I can watch her enter the back door of the Venetian with the harlequin man; I can see my father chase the blue Volvo down Buccaneer Boulevard, feathers flying out of the window; I can pick the both of them up like tiny dolls and place them together, gently, in the little plastic gondola for their final meeting. ...

The could-be-Vietnamese woman with the sunglasses is breaking the rules. She's bent over, looking straight down at the Venetian hotel. Her hands are pressed hard against the glass, her face so close she could kiss it. The DO NOT TOUCH DISPLAY sign is under her right elbow. My mouth opens but the words jam up in my throat. I know it's not my mother, I'm sure of it, but the woman is so intent on seeing what she's seeing — what is she seeing? My ghosts? Hers? She's so still; to disturb her would be wrong, it would be like waking a sleepwalker. She could be. She could be.

"Could we move on?" a voice bleats in my ear. I Love Texas, mint green, is looking at me with a worried expression. I feel my face blotching red: I've been wandering; the sheep are anxious. Time to wrap up.

By now, even the Koreans have realized how ripped off they've been. Luckily, the tour ends with a movie, so I don't have to face their disgusted looks. In the tiny auditorium, they arrange themselves on rows of hard benches. I flick the switch. The movie's basically one big infomercial, courtesy of the Las Vegas Tourism Board. "Vegas Now!" swoops in with a helicopter view of the Strip, then a series of quick cuts. All the new attractions of the last five years are included: the Fallen Twin Towers Memorial Statue and Light Show (mournful bagpipe interlude); the giant Laughing Buddha of the Shanghai Hotel (Chinese zithers plinka-plinka-plinka-ing from speakers in his elbows); and the magnificent Green Dome of the New Baghdad Palace (live Middle Eastern ululation, set to a salsa beat). Pick a world, any world.

Smirky Boy and Pouty Girl are going at it. They've been waiting the whole tour for just this moment. At my place by the door, I can see them sitting in the dark in the back row, body pressing hard against body. Their limp arms slowly animate themselves, slithering into each other's shirts. I can't look away. His tongue flickers in her mouth; he writhes against her leg and his shirt rides up, revealing new, white skin. I should throw them out, but I can't move. Smirky's eyes open. I see them glittering in the dark. He watches me watching him, and smiles, mouth open, and dives in again. I jerk my head away.

That's when I realize — the woman with the sunglasses is missing. I do a head count. She's definitely gone. I leave the auditorium and retrace my steps quickly, room flowing into room flowing into room, back in time to the beginning, but all the spaces are empty. Rafael stands alone, scouting for no one. And then I'm running, fast-forward now through the years, arriving into the darkness of the movie ending and me flicking the lights on just in time, pointing the way to the gift shop and trying to figure out exactly how I missed her leaving me — I missed her leaving me again.


It was outside a rest stop in Cozad, Nebraska, that Emily's destination became clear to her. Until then, she hadn't really considered where she was heading; Emily was keeping thought to a minimum. I-80 was the perfect highway for just that — no deviation, no decisions along the route, and nothing to stir up memories, either: the endless array of farm and field, and farm and field, reminded her of nothing but farms and fields. She was able to just drive, noting the mile markers accumulating along the way, the steady press and release of the accelerator under her foot. The monotony was a blessing.

And not once did she feel the need to shake a finger out the window and yell, "Moo-cows! Look!"

Watching the odometer tick off the life of the Volvo gave Emily a grim kind of pleasure. She liked imagining how the speed, the dust, and the miles were all conspiring to wear down the car. Emily, she of the faithful three-thousand-mile oil and fluids checkup, the woman who kept an extra three-ounce bottle of metallic blue paint in the glove compartment for touch-ups, was, in effect, hastening the car's demise, and it gave her satisfaction. She could punish it, at least.

She needed to leave for everything to stop. She had thought going to Vee's in Wisconsin would help put life on hold, but that was impossible with Walt around. Life didn't stop for a four-year-old. Vee could take care of the cooking, the cleaning up, could even help with Owen, Emily's sedated husband, but she was no comfort at all to Walt, who wanted Emily, and only Emily, just at a time when the touch of anyone was enough to make her stomach clench.

She hadn't felt that way since just after Walt was born. During those terrible months, the merest hint of exuberance in her husband's smile was enough to send her reeling to the bathroom. She had such an acute sense of panic then, of being responsible for everything when all she wanted to do was sleep.


Excerpted from Still Life Las Vegas by James Sie, Sungyoon Choi. Copyright © 2015 James Sie. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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