An idiosyncratic road trip into the American outback. Film critic and biographer Thomson (Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, 1996, etc.) ventures deep into the desert far beyond the Hollywood Hills, returning with a spirited and thoroughly well-researched portrait of a state that is not “a network of vital places so much as an intermittently and briefly interrupted nullity,” a place that is so sparsely settled as to boast a road called “the loneliest highway in America.” Early on, Thomson comes upon a weird techno-hippie festival called Burning Man, a hallucinogen-fueled spectacle held in the depths of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada’s remote northwestern corner; from there he moves out into the comparatively lush mountain country of the northeast, swings by scenic Lake Tahoe, drives on to the isolated interior—the landscape of UFO sightings and atomic tests—and eventually ends up in Las Vegas, the capital of all that is bizarre. An eminently literate writer, Thomson wears his cultural-critic hat proudly, turning in, among other character studies, a sharp portrait of a world-weary, pathetic Frank Sinatra, who came to Nevada in search of respect and wealth, and whom “the real gangsters kept . . . around for the trade he pulled in, for the allure, and because in his way he was such a terrific little wop hoodlum.” But Thomson is most interested in serving as a pop historian, and he discharges his duties well at every turn, looking into such disparate matters as the struggle to control Nevada’s water resources, the long tradition of prize-fighting in the state’s casinos, and the paranoia born of government secrecy and small-town corruption—both of which, Thomson suggests, are the currency of Nevada’s soul. Not a book to please Nevada tourism officials, surely, but one that will engage anyone interested in the literature of the so-called New West.