John O’Brien took his own life in 1994, approximately 4 years after publishing Leaving Las Vegas, the only work he completed on his own. It has been described by his father as his suicide note. With this information at hand and after actually having read the novel, it is quite hard and potentially pointless to look at it from an aesthetic point of view alone.
It’s fairly obvious that O’Brien observed reality with an exceptionally keen eye and closely reported on his findings. I believe Leaving Las Vegas to be first and foremost a novel about the clarity of his vision. Sera, a prostitute based in Las Vegas and Ben, an alcoholic who moved there from L.A. in order to drink himself to death, meet and fall in love. Their story is brief and O’Brien doesn’t use them to present his educated guess on social realities, abuse and victimhood, being lost and found, redeemed by love, or other low hanging fruit from the narrative tree. Instead, he lays bare an existential reality for the reader to see, respectively, to recognize.
His characterization of Sera may be the most convincing and beautiful female portrait in literature. The way O’Brien presents her inner life, her thoughts, and her indestructible drive to live, gives her voice a level of depth and integrity that at least I, haven’t encountered anywhere else so far. The fact that he doesn’t patronize her, nor judges, and, most notably, does not pity her – is a powerful statement on his side as an author. It commands respect and captures your undivided attention as a reader.
What O’Brien does is to juxtapose two fundamental attitudes towards life: acceptance and dismissal. As Camus would put it “there is only one really serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” He even jokes at one point about Ben being past Camus’ existential pep talk. As any serious writer diving into topics such as these, O’Brien has moments of brilliant humor and sarcasm that put a very humane and diverting spin on this book, which is anything but funny. It’s his way of pointing out the laughable and absurd side of life and he does it masterfully.
He also understands the multiple layers of brokenness Sera and Ben embody and he gives his marginal characters the necessary space to unravel. Of course, O’Brien knows that living on the fringe of society also means being free of its hypocrisy and the lies it feeds itself in order to make reality bearable. The honesty and directness of this novel are so very heartwarming, in a way that it rips your heart out, but then puts it back together with the truth.
O’Brien is a brilliant writer, an incredible observer, his prose bursts with most interesting associations and word choices. Reading him is a feast in every way and Leaving Las Vegas is nothing but a tour de force. There is no trace of sentimentality or sappiness. He lifts the veil allowing us to witness a raw reality as opposed to him trying to change it, to embellish it, or even worse to improve upon it. He observes, reports and so much of what he has to say rings true.
One of the aspects that make this novel so powerful and poignant is the fact that both Sera and Ben are completely unpreoccupied with appearance, with their place in society, with how it might look. You realize you don’t have to peel away several layers of bullshit to get to the center. The essence is given to you from the get-go. No tricks, no games. And that is so very, very refreshing. No symbolism, just the straightforward depiction of the human condition as experienced. Nobody tries to save or change anybody, instead, you get to look deep down into the soul of characters who in many ways have nothing left to lose. O’Brien lets them unfold with no pretentiousness from the engulfing clarity of his sadness.
Before the curtain falls, Sera and Ben experience some of the best things that can happen to those who are still among the living: genuine companionship, affection, understanding, true communication, love. When Ben’s not passed out from drinking and Sera is not out looking for clients, they share beautiful, genuine moments of tenderness and human closeness. For a brief moment, they are not alone. “Just stay with me for a while. There’s time left. You can have more money. You can drink all you want. (…) You can talk or listen. Just stay. That’s what I want.“, Ben tells her shortly after meeting her. She does and they share a moment of real connection; something moves inside of them despite their weariness. Their love story is a soundless supernova explosion.
The unexpected surprise of this book is maybe Al’s character. Sera’s pimp from LA and her supreme abuser, although it must be noted that Sera isn’t at any point presented as a victim. I find Al to be the real tragic character of this book. Interestingly enough, O’Brien in his supreme respect for his characters treats him equally, gives him a voice, even humanizes him – proving once more that he understands several nuances human bankruptcy : the one that makes you reject life, the one that makes you desperately cling to it, and the one that makes you destroy it for others.
I think it’s important to mention that this book doesn’t tip the scale in favor of one or the other interpretation about meaning and its value. When Sera asks Ben why he’s killing himself, he simply answers “I don’t remember“. O’Brien doesn’t make a list of pros and cons on pulling the trigger or refraining from doing so. He writes about the ones who do and the ones who don’t, the absurdity of it all, and the moments of grace found in-between.
I wish I had read this book a long, long time ago.