You'd think Joe McGinniss Jr. was from Vegas. The familiar derision with which he addresses its cookie-cutter subdivisions or its piddling gallery scene; the ease with which he moves from the fake beach at the Hard Rock into intensely personal, private spaces; the inevitable sense of being sucked dry, sucked in; all these seem to be the product of years of unhappy inhabitation. His Vegas is Denver without mountains, L.A. without movies; a city without a purpose, unless you count annihilation.

The Delivery Man (Black Cat, 278 pages, $14), McGinniss' powerful debut novel, tells the story of Chase, an aspiring painter just out of college, who accepts a job as a high school art teacher in his native Las Vegas. It's supposed to be a temporary thing; he and his high-powered girlfriend have plans to start a life in San Francisco. But as Chase resumes his high-school friendship with a troubled prostitute, Michele, and her pimp, Bailey, he finds himself slipping back into self-destructive habits. Before he knows it, he's driving Michele to all her appointments, and it becomes clearer and clearer that he isn't leaving.

A sympathetic look at the life of drug-using, self-destructing hookers and hustlers sounds like an uphill battle, but the simple truth about these characters is that they aren't hookers or hustlers. They are aspiring painters, film directors and grad students. Although they inevitably prostitute themselves, they seldom talk about it, because they are ashamed or because they don't understand what's happening in their lives. All they want is comfort, to live in the Sun King suite on the 22nd floor of the Palace and order room service. But before they know it, prostitution isn't even paying the bills; one by one, they go into debt with their own bodies.

As a first book, The Delivery Man still has a few kinks to work out. Peripheral characters like Hunter (slacker buddy) and Julia (MBA girlfriend) are present more as foils than real people. When they show depth, it's prefab, prime-time movie depth—Julia needs to succeed in order to escape her impoverished roots; Hunter wrestles with statutory lusts. Another weakness: McGinniss seems predisposed to the one-shot metaphor, the symbol at the end of a scene to tie it all together. Some of these are spot-on: the image of boys torturing a coyote with a lighter and an aerosol can comes to mind. Others, especially at the novel's outset, are less adroit, more heavy-handed.

But with his three leads squarely in place, McGinniss—who's from D.C., by the way—can afford a few self-indulgent metaphors. In the tradition of The Death of a Salesman , his book shows that tragedy is not about heads of state or tycoons; rather, it hurts most when characters start with little and end with nothing, when their secret desires are so modest as to be almost pathetic. White trash ye are, and to white trash ye shall return.


Joe McGinniss Jr. reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Feb. 6. Free.