Illustration by Susan Coyne.

We visit the new Encore Boston Harbor casino and talk to Joshua Cohen about growing up among casinos in Atlantic City. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

The Encore Boston Harbor is—physically and historically—a big deal. It’s the first Wynn Resorts’ Encore casino outside Las Vegas and Macau, a project costing more than $2.5 billion, and it’s in Boston, of all places.

The approach to the Encore Boston Harbor.

We had to take a look for ourselves. Our tour took us through some of the colossal resort out in Everett, Mass., and our stops included the slot machines, where we lost a few dollars.

Looking at the machines that would soon take our money.

It’s a monument to excess: a five-star hotel with hundreds of rooms, a casino floor that could hold multiple 787 aircrafts. And there’s the Jeff Koons Popeye, whose pricetag ($28 million) provides much of the sculpture’s appeal.

The Jeff Koons Popeye.

We learned in our reporting that the resort is hoping to bring in international patrons—they’re especially seeking wealthy visitors from mainland China and counting on developments like a new direct flight between Logan and Chengdu.

Read: Attention

There’s so much to think about amid the so-much of this casino, and we needed to find the appropriate person to explore it all. One essay in particular led us to the novelist Joshua Cohen: “The Last Last Summer.” You can find it in n+1, and it’s also in his new collection of essays, Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction. This is a landmark collection from a turbocharged, critical imagination, covering everything from casino culture to literary history to theology.

Credit: Marion Ettlinger.

Attention rewards your own attention, again and again and again. Single sentences here can take you on real intellectual journeys. Here’s an example, from an essay on Pynchon:

If one of the barest necessities of fiction is keeping two characters apart for enough time for a misunderstanding to ensue—a misunderstanding that can be resolved only by the protagonists individually moving toward each other, and toward the book’s conclusion—cellphones, now “smartphones,” have become the chief antagonists of fiction.

It’s something to think about as we go into next week’s episode on Middlemarch, a novel (and an episode) all about the drama of divergent perspectives.

Atlantic City, viewed from an approaching Greyhound bus. Notice: the Tropicana.

Our man-on-the street interviews in Everett ended with one guy saying: you want to know what this place will look like, check out Atlantic City. So we did. Adam went down to Atlantic City to record Josh Cohen, and in a kind of conversational tour de force he showed us the underside of what Encore’s PR machine presented. It’s a pretty dark report from the boardwalk, and everyone marveling at the Encore excess on the harbor shouldn’t forget what’s powering this business, and what Encore means. As Cohen says in our episode:

… it means that this thing which was accepted in our dreams is now accepted in our waking lives, and that something that was kind of sinful and shameful now has a place in our marquee waterfront in the middle of America’s most historic city.

And I think that says a lot about people’s attitudes toward gaming. I think it also says a lot about the desperation of an America that would rather gamble than make, or that has been given the chance only to gamble and not to make. And I think it also says a lot about this particular American appetite, a particular American psyche: a desire to risk as opposed to build.

Listen: Johnny Hodges and Wild Bill Davis, In Atlantic City (Live)

Johnny Hodges.

With all the talk of Atlantic City’s casinos and their relevance to our current president’s story, other aspects of the city get ignored. And so we’re grateful that Joshua Cohen told us about Wild Bill Davis’s and Cambridge’s own Johnny Hodges’s live album, In Atlantic City. You’ll hear some really joyous swing in this performance from Grace’s Little Belmont, a jazz bar and lounge that used to be on Kentucky Avenue in AC.

Listen: The Man with the Golden Arm Score

If you talk about casinos, and especially if you talk about New Jersey and casinos, you’re going to talk about Frank Sinatra. Encore has a Sinatra-themed restaurant ($60 for the chicken parm), and you can hear that stop on our tour along with some consideration of Sinatra’s celebrity. But the casino culture is more than just glamour, and Sinatra was, too.

Sinatra starred in Otto Preminger’s film, The Man with the Golden Arm, an adaptation of Nelson Algren’s novel of the same title. It’s the story of a recovering drug addict with some involvement in gambling, a look at the darker compulsions that you’ll find in casinos and elsewhere in a society committed to gain, or to the desperate game of winners versus losers.

The score, by Elmer Bernstein (which we ended the show with), has got a blaring, noirish sound, with the hyped-up energy of a night maybe not at a casino, but in some similarly high-risk domain.

For our Patreon Patrons: An Audible Stroll to Atlantic City’s Boardwalk

Adam had to catch a bus back from Atlantic City shortly after recording Joshua Cohen, but before he left, the two of them managed to walk a few blocks to AC’s famous boardwalk. You can hear this walk, and more of Cohen’s consideration of a city that can both confound and inspire, if you are (or if you become!) a Patreon subscriber.

Next Week: Middlemarch

Speaking of conversational tour de forces, we recorded Rebecca Mead on Friday, and she was fantastic. We’ll have that one ready next week. Hurry, there’s still time to finish the book! And there’s surely time to read an excerpt from Mead’s book My Life in Middlemarch.

Adam has set up our Middlemarch voicemail box. Leave us a message, and tell us about your experience of reading (or not reading) this book. We’ll send you an Open Source t-shirt! 617–651–2421 is the number. Call us please!

This Week’s Ephemeral Library

Visit the smart and surprising RiffRaff bookstore, at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Ponder our obsession with the miniature, with Leslie Jamison. We’re still talking about Jill Lepore’s amazing New Yorker story about her best friend Jane. Did you know you can rent out Naulakha, the house outside Brattleboro, VT that Rudyard Kipling lived in for about 4 years and where he wrote “The Jungle Book” and “The Second Jungle Book,” “Captains Courageous,” and the first draft of “Kim”? A profile of the bad boy of the moment, Saikat Chakrabarti, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff. David Remnick talks to AOC. The NYT’s Nikole Hannah-Jones on “It Was Never About Busing. Ai Wei Wei on the Hong Kong Resistance.

Lilian Ross

And last but not least; this was killer: the LRB’s Andrew O’Hagan on Lilian Ross:

I’ve never met anybody who hated as many people as Lillian Ross did. She would count their names off on her fingers, regularly within spitting distance of them, and her voice wasn’t quiet and she wasn’t shy. Bending back each digit and making a face, she’d offer a defining word after each name:

Gloria Steinem — phoney
Janet Malcolm — pretentious
Renata Adler — crackpot
Susan Sontag — nobody
Nora Ephron — liar

Other hand:

Kenneth Tynan — creep
Truman Capote — leech
George Plimpton — slick
Tom Wolfe — talentless
Philip Roth — jerk

It was a mercy she only had two hands.

Wes Anderson also struck up a (less complicated) friendship with Ross. Here’s the remembrance he recorded at the Montmartre Cemetery after Ross’ death in 2019. And here’s Ross on The Royal Tennenbaums.

Too many links, too little time. Stay cool folks, and remember to share, tweet, subscribe and heck, go ahead and donate!

Til next week

The OS dealers.

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.