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  Leaving Las Vegas

John O'Brien

Grove Press, $11 (paper)

by Michael Greenberg

I read Leaving Las Vegas twice, once to exorcise the possessing images of the movie it inspired, the second time to try to meet the novel on its merits with a semblance of freshness. That wasn't easy. With his subtle, but crucial, restructuring of the book, Mike Figgis produced a far more seamless work than O'Brien's original. The movie's flawless style took my breath away, and initially had the effect of dwarfing O'Brien's uneven, sometimes shapeless prose. But despite its defects, the novel imbues its main characters with something the movie can only hint at: an acute awareness of the extreme -- and chosen -- circumstance of their lives. The book's unique power resides in this awareness; and it allows O'Brien to breathe new life into two of the most familiar and overused archetypes of popular fiction: the drunk and the whore.

The drunk is Ben who "doesn't care that he is an alcoholic. The issue is entirely irrelevant to him." His rather ordinary, bourgeois past will shed no light on the rational horror of his "found intention" to obliterate himself with the poison he loves. Nor will any particular detail of his psyche. Nowhere is there evidence of Ben being "a failed writer" as Grove's publicity sheet and certain reviewers have tagged him. To impose this projection may be a function of some readers' unwillingness to admit that Ben would kill himself for no recognizable reason. If so, it's not surprising. Among the received expectations we bring to the reading of fiction is that, in one way or another, the writer will tell us why his characters behave as they do -- especially if that character is an avowed suicide like Ben. To a stunning degree, O'Brien subverts this expectation.

Ben's impulse to destroy himself is so psychologically unspecific as to be sublime. And to experience Leaving Las Vegas the reader must accept this impulse on its broadest and most ineffable human terms. For Ben, to drink himself to death is both a capitulation to his fate and a willed act of freedom, an unavoidable task that he stages and controls as if it were his sole human purpose. To pull off such a suicide is hard work, and some of the novel's finest passages describe the sober and undeluded labor of Ben's drunkenness: the constant clock watching, the nausea and black-outs, the fearsome struggle to keep down a sliver of food. But occasionally O'Brien gives us more than the minutiae of Ben's physical disintegration. In an upscale Malibu bar Ben receives a smile from an "unprofessional" woman who is sitting nearby. Ben admires and comprehends this smile. He takes it in as the benediction and the curse that, for him, it must be. This smile is "a daring embrace. It pleads for an answer. It is a gamble. It says: You may be able to save my life, I know that I can save yours." With piercing clarity it confirms to him how far from the realm of human interaction he has fallen. And, unable to respond to it, Ben "plunges wildly back into his liquor, ordering and reordering at a feverish pace . . . buying rounds for brief acquaintances at the bar, who down them quickly and move along to dinner or to another seat though they are not quite sure what it is about him that has frightened them."

Indeed, it is with the fright of our own recognized revulsion and attraction for death that we follow Ben to Las Vegas, his chosen burial ground, where he can finally sell his watch because the bars never close.

In his depiction of Sera, O'Brien's archetypal whore, the author similarly avoids specific psychological explanations. As drinking is for Ben, hooking for her is a high and cultivated craft -- a practice. Her tropism toward pain, her workmanlike, almost Calvinist approach to it, is uncompromised and unquestioned. As with Ben, it is not the reason for her condition, but the condition itself that interests O'Brien. And as if to prove it, the swift tableaux that he paints of her past show an unremarkable and solidly middle-class childhood. Neither traumatic nor deprived, Sera's upbringing will explicate nothing about her present condition.

Ben's compulsion to self-destruct finds its counterpoint in Sera's mania for survival. She walks the treacherous Vegas Strip, her senses pitched high, like the guy who goes into the wilderness with nothing but a bucknife and a quart of water for the kick of seeing if he can make it out alive. Her real payoff isn't cash, it seems, but the quick cold jolts of pain with which the extreme danger of her situation rewards her. Here she is regaining consciousness after being nearly beaten to death by three paying adolescents: "[Sera] wipes the blood and makeup from her face, realizing that she won't be able to work for at least a week. She hopes that she can do well today at the [blackjack] tables, for a change." But the grim drudgery of her sessions at the blackjack tables only confirms that "tricking is still for her a more profitable gamble."

So Sera moves through life maximizing pain, measuring herself against it, carefully controlling its dosage only to avoid being killed. She is pounded, poked, and tormented by tricks who "squeeze their life into her, all they are, all they don't know about themselves." What they don't know -- what Sera knows -- is her strength. Like Ben, she is distinguished by the private and inviolable poetry of her awareness. When she glimpses, for instance, "a tattered woman" dragging herself under the hot sun with "several children in tow," Sera "wonders at the woman's pain -- at her ability to remain ignorant of it." To her such ignorance is unthinkable.

With his strained and lengthy portrait of Sera's ex-pimp, Al, O'Brien seriously dilutes the purity of his tale. Al is a cliché, a pimp who feels naked because he has had to pawn his gold chains. When O'Brien tells us that "he was the man whom [Sera] loved," we do not believe him. The author plows this road all the way to its false conclusion: He tells us that Sera is changed now, she can vanquish her pimp, and this vanquishment becomes the fulcrum for her devotion to Ben.

I would not harp on this if it did not so nakedly undermine the central achievement of the novel by burdening Sera with a motivation she does not need. O'Brien has already shown us, in a dozen more subtle and convincing ways, why Sera would fall for Ben. Many pages before Ben appears, she observes the behavior of a "gaudily adorned . . . fiftyish man" in one of the casinos. He's a high-roller, this guy, drinking and betting with abandon, shamelessly coddled by the manipulative casino staff. Sera despises him. He is "almost self-destructive" -- and that "almost" dooms him in her eyes. She sees it for what it is, a lame and mediocre attempt "to prove his masculinity," eons away from the complete and transcendent self-destructiveness that she will soon recognize -- and fall in love with -- in Ben, who, far from trying to "prove his masculinity," obliterates it on his way to the bottom of the ravine.

Figgis's movie circumvents the novel's weakness by diminishing the importance of Al, and focusing on Sera and Ben's affair to a much greater degree than in the book, where they do not even meet until the final forty pages. Much is gained by this compression, but what is lost is O'Brien's minute and separate delineation of his characters' lives.

And I almost forgot O'Brien's transgressions at the novel's end, when, in the seclusion of her understanding of Ben -- of their consummation which is not sex but death -- Sera sees the truth and the future of her heart. As Sera watches Ben die,

It all became clear, how much more deliberate his life was than hers, how he knew the one great trick that she couldn't do, and how she would fall in love with him every minute, every second, over and over again, for the rest of her life.

I have resisted the temptation to compare Leaving Las Vegas to Malcolm Lowry's 1947 masterpiece of alcoholism, Under the Volcano. Though both books address the alcoholic's inability to embrace the proferred and redeeming prize of love, as accomplishments of fiction they are in entirely different leagues. Unfortunately, O'Brien will have no chance to add to his first novel: He killed himself in 1994. What he left behind is a refutation of the need for explicit psychological motivation to understand the compulsions that may rule our lives.

Originally published in the April/ May 1996 issue of Boston Review

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