Casino Locale: McGinniss sets his novel in the heart of Sin City
Casino Locale: McGinniss sets his novel in the heart of Sin City Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Joe McGinniss Jr.’s debut novel, The Delivery Man, is being marketed as a book that “takes the reader inside the surreal excess of Las Vegas.” The story is littered with scenes featuring teen prostitutes, fake pirate ships at casinos, and rich assholes in the VIP rooms of clubs. Months of research time on the Strip, right?

“All told, writing this book, I was probably there for about two weeks,” says McGinniss, 37, who lives in Cleveland Park with his wife, Jeanine, and 8-month-old son, Julien. “I’m sure I’ll hear something, hopefully from somebody in Las Vegas, saying, ‘This is bullshit. This is not Las Vegas.’ I know. It’s a novel. It’s my interpretation of Las Vegas.”

In truth The Delivery Man is less a gritty Vegas story than a jeremiad about shallow American youth culture. Numerous female characters succumb to drugs, seduced by the money they get as escorts, though the author admits the novel’s prostitution plot is purely a product of his imagination. Mainly, he’s cynical about an America where teenage girls “make themselves into minicelebrities,” he says. “They aspire to not a whole lot of depth. And it’s so easy, especially without a strong parental role.” That stuff he does know from experience: After graduating from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, just down the road from where he grew up, McGinniss moved to San Francisco, where he worked for the city’s department of Children, Youth & Their Families, developing programs for at-risk kids. By the late ’90s, though, he’d soured on the bureaucracy there—“the turf wars and the backstabbing and all the personality crap,” he says. “Every field of work has that to some degree, but it was so ugly there. And yet the mission was so great.”

Not quite ready to give up on issue advocacy, McGinniss moved to D.C. in 1998 to pursue an M.A. in public policy at American University. But he also started tinkering with the idea of writing fiction, auditing an AU writing workshop with novelist Richard McCann. Eventually, he began to imagine the hero of his book: Chase, an aimless artist and product of a broken home, who’s uncertain whether to pursue his relationship with his M.B.A. girlfriend in San Francisco or stick around and participate in the seedy schemes of his pal, which mainly involves ferrying escorts around the Vegas area.

That last plot point explains the title, which is also a nod to his mentor, novelist Bret Easton Ellis. Like Ellis’ 1985 novel about Los Angeles party kids, Less Than Zero, The Delivery Man’s title was inspired by an Elvis Costello song. (So was Ellis’ forthcoming novel, a Less Than Zero sequel titled Imperial Bedrooms.) The connections don’t end there. McGinniss’ father, the author of true-crime bestsellers such as Fatal Vision and Blind Faith, mentored Ellis as he wrote Less Than Zero; following in those footsteps, Ellis recommended The Delivery Man to Less Than Zero’s editor, Morgan Entrekin, who picked up the book for Grove/Atlantic’s Black Cat imprint.

“Admit it, you’re gagging a little too, right?” wrote Gawker’s Alex Balk after the book-industry tipsheet Publishers Lunch noted all these connections last February.

“They don’t know,” says McGinniss. “They probably thought I was 22, on my way from Columbia or Princeton. I don’t think it was a very thoughtful or well-reported slam.”

But the Publishers Lunch story that Gawker referenced had its facts straight: When McGinniss was looking for people to give his manuscript a read, among the first people he contacted was Ellis. “I groaned,” says Ellis of receiving McGinniss’ first e-mail asking for help. “Of course, you have to understand, I feel completely indebted to his father. There was no way I was going to say no to his request.”

Ellis sent McGinniss back to the drawing board. “It needed to be tightened up,” he says. “I felt there were a lot of missed opportunities.…There was a lot of editorializing. He had the same setting [of the published novel], the same cast of characters, the same complicated relationships, but the story needed to be more precise.”

“I was very naive,” McGinniss says. “I’d just assumed you crank it out and if it reads well, it’s a novel—it’s done, you’re set. At the time I sent it to him, inside I thought, I think I’m pretty close.”

For the next two years he made multiple revisions and did some more Vegas research—though mainly from D.C., reading through the online diaries of Vegas teens and conducting e-mail interviews with a handful of them. Their responses didn’t exactly get him Joan Didion-grade insights—“OMG” means “Oh my god,” lots of Vegas families vacation in the casinos, some teenage girls dream of being models someday. As a result, the portraits of young women who live for MySpace and blow feel hyperstylized, but Chase comes off as an authentic 20-something who’s terrified of moving away, of keeping his (ultimately short-lived) teaching job, of pursuing his artistic ambitions.

In other words, Chase doesn’t do a whole lot, and building a propulsive novel around a fairly static character was tough for McGinniss, who was initially uninterested in outlining or organizing. Eventually, though, he broke down and mapped out The Delivery Man on index cards that he glued to posterboards, which he hung on the walls of his home office. “There are lots of schools of thought, and one was that you write, you don’t map it out, you don’t outline, just go with inspiration, you let your characters take you,” he says. “I was always getting stuck. Finally, I broke down, and it was hard as hell. It took a month just to do that.”

McGinniss finished his final revision in late 2006 and sent it to a handful of publishers before it was picked up by Black Cat. Would The Delivery Man have found a publisher if the writer didn’t have a father who’s a famous author, and if it didn’t have another famous author shepherding it? “Contacts help—let’s put it that way,” says Ellis. “They speed the process. But you have to have a book there.…A publisher is not going to publish a bad book. I cannot hold a gun to somebody’s head.”

The Delivery Man has done very well for a debut novel—the film rights were picked up last July for a reported mid-six figures, with a script nearly finished by Creighton Vero, who wrote the 2002 speed-freak comedy Spun. The book itself has been published as a paperback original at a print run of 20,000 copies and gone into a second printing of 10,000 more. But McGinniss is holding off on writing a second book. That’s mainly because he’s focusing on raising his son. But he’s also still a little skeptical about the publishing world, even despite the help he’s had navigating it. “I’ve seen my father go through hell, absolute hell, in publishing,” he says. “I’ve seen Bret go through it—the New York Times has never given him a good review, and the guy is brilliant.”

It wasn’t until the book was finished that he finally passed it along to his father to read. “He just knew that it would be sticky, that it would be hard,” he says. “If it sucks, he’s got to be delicate about that. I wanted him to read it at certain points, but I understood. And I understand much better now.”

Joe McGinniss Jr. reads from his work at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919.