Home > 1990, 20th Century, American Literature, Highly Recommended, Made into a film, Novel, O'Bien John, TBR20 > Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. (Wow)

Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. (Wow)

February 14, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien (1990) Translated into French by Elisabeth Guinsbourg, revised by Hélène Cohen.

I read Leaving Las Vegas last December and it’s still vivid in my mind. That in itself means something. How many times do we struggle to remember a book we read a few weeks ago? Leaving Las Vegas didn’t fade away, it left a lasting impression on me. Now if you wonder if it has anything to do with the eponymous film with Nicholas Cage, the answer is yes.

The novel opens with Sera, sitting on a sidewalk on Las Vegas Boulevard.

Sucking weak coffee through a hole in the plastic lid of a red and green Styrofoam cup, Sera sports a place to sit down. She has been walking around now for at least two hours and wants desperately to rest. Normally, she wouldn’t dare hang around this long on in front of a 7-11, but the curb looks high, and having recently accumulated a fresh coat of red paint, not too dirty. She drops down hard on the cold curb and hugs her knees, bending her head into the privacy of the dark little crave created by her arms. Her eyes follow the stream of light running between her two thighs, down to where it concluded in black lace, aptly exposed by her short leather skirt.

She throws back her head, and her dark brown hair fans around her shoulders, dances in the turbulence created by a passing Sun Bus; a window framed profile begins to run and vanishes in a cloud of black exhaust. In the red gloss of her recently applied lipstick there is a tiny reflection of the glowng convenience store sign, its cold fluorescent light shining much too white to tan or warm the beautiful face appealing beneath it. She modestly lowers her knees, only to have the black blazer fall open as she leans back in her elbows, revealing her small breasts under a sheer lace camisole. Making no effort to cover herself, she turns her head; her dark green eyes, protected by long mascara-laden lashes, scan up and down Las Vegas Boulevard.

Tadatadatacheeda tacheek tacheek sheeka she catches on her lips an unrefined tune, already in progress. All but inaudible, composed clumsily out of fragments overheard in casino lounges, it nonetheless seems to guide the passing traffic, coercing the rumble and whine of the street to perform in symphony with the slide and twirl that exist in her head. Across the street—not yet over the shiver, nor to the goods—a dormant construction side, populated with skeletal cranes raising adolescent towers, stands smugly, silently, and in dubious approval. It wears the gree and blue hues of the night. It knows not whence it came. It will lend her the benefit of the doubt. It will accompany her on the long, hard, painful ride in a car filled with chums. Sera’s arms are weak, but her pulse is strong. She smacks shut her lips and waits for a trick.

O'Brien_Leaving_Las_VegasIt’s a long quote, I know but it’s the only one I’ll be able to include in this billet, since I have the book in French and thus rely on the English kindle sample for original quotes. But apart from this practical issue, it serves my purpose. Now you know why I was hooked from the first page. Sera sits there, the city bustling around her and she wants to hide for a moment but can’t. She’s a hooker and dresses accordingly: she can’t hide. Either her top is revealed or her bottom. She’s so surrounded by the noise, the lights, the music that they become part of her and she becomes part of the city.

The first chapters are dedicated to Sera, her life as a lone prostitute in Las Vegas. The night we meet her will leave her bruised and battered both physically and emotionally.

Then we’re leaving Las Vegas for Los Angeles where we get to know Ben. He’s an alcoholic and he’s about to move out to Las Vegas for purely practical reasons: there, one has access to alcohol round the clock. He knows it’s the end of the road for him and he wants to spend his last weeks as easily as he can.

Ben and Sera meet and find in each other the compassion and human warmth they both need. Sera doesn’t try to save Ben. She doesn’t judge him. She stands by him. And Ben is past judging anyone. He knows what she does for a living and sees her as a human being, as an equal. That alone is a gift for Sera. Her life story is heartbreaking but what impressed me more was O’Brien’s description of alcoholism.

If you weren’t convinced that alcohol is a drug, read Leaving Las Vegas. We’ve all read books with drunkards as main characters. Post Office by Bukowski or Under the Volcano by Malcom Lowry are examples. Even if these books don’t shy away from the ugliness of alcoholism, none of them pictures the sheer physical dependency on alcohol the way Leaving Las Vegas does. Think more about books and films about heroin addicts. This is how John O’Brien paints alcoholism. Ben needs an alcohol fix at regular intervals. His life in Los Angeles revolves around alcohol. Which one to drink first thing in the morning without throwing it up. How to deal with an upset stomach and make it accept the substance. Where to drink in the mornings without catching too much attention. Where to drink in the afternoons. Where to drink at night. How to hide drunkenness not to be thrown out of the bar. Where to buy alcohol at night before it is forbidden by law. How to judge the quantity of alcohol to have at home to go through the night once it’s not allowed to buy some more until the next morning. It’s awful. Terrifying.

Ben lets himself die of alcoholism. He’s like a person with terminal cancer. Nothing can be done for him anymore and he just wants to end it as best he can. Las Vegas is that place for him. And Sera is his last companion.

Leaving Las Vegas is the gut-wrenching novel of two lost souls. They are swallowed by an artificial city whose main occupation is amusement and thriving on activities that are illegal in other States. Las Vegas is like the cupboard where you push all the mess in an attempt to let your guests think your apartment is clean and tidy. But Ben and Sera also find acceptance in Las Vegas. Here, in the cupboard of America, nobody pays attention to them. Nobody judges them. They have a right to be.

John O’Brien would know about Ben’s addiction. He was destroyed by alcoholism and committed suicide in 1994.

Highly recommended.

  1. February 14, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    A very sad book and unforgettable, indeed!


    • February 14, 2016 at 9:49 pm

      Sera’s story is very sad and yet, what lingers most is Ben’s.


  2. February 14, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    I saw the film of this when it came out years ago, and I wasn’t crazy about it. BUT, I just finished Stripper Lessons which I liked very much. Will send it your way if you’d like it.


    • February 14, 2016 at 9:56 pm

      You’d like this one too, Guy. It’s between Bukowski, Bunker and Chandler, I’d say. Something about his vision of life, his way of describing people who live in the outskirts of society. I wish I could send it to you but my copy’s in French.
      I’d like to read Stripper Lessons, yes. I loved Leaving Las Vegas and you thought Stripper Lessons was good. Seems like a good pick for me.


      • February 14, 2016 at 10:30 pm

        I’ll be posting my review of Stripper Lessons soon. The copy is yours.


  3. February 15, 2016 at 10:28 am

    Great review, Emma. I’m familiar with this story from the screen adaptation, a film I admired more than I liked (if that makes sense). It’s tough to watch. Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays came back to me as I was reading your review, I guess it’s because Sera’s situation reminds me a little of Maria’s in Play – the sense of feeling lost and disconnected from life.


    • February 16, 2016 at 1:42 pm

      Thanks Jacqui. I know what you mean about the Didion reference. It crossed my mind too.
      Sera is strangely optimistic considering her circumstances. She still has hope and “lust for life”


  4. February 15, 2016 at 3:46 pm

    Wow. It really made an impact on you Emma.

    I must be the only person in the world who didn’t see the movie years ago – in fact, I hadn’t realised (or had forgotten) that it was based on a novel.

    I get what you say about Under the Volcano, which is a much more esoteric book about mental rather than physical deterioration. I still think the Consul’s plight is a pretty awful one. Bukowski is clearly a raging alcoholic, yet his work is more about the crazy situations that ensue rather than the constant grind of the physical dependency.

    There are a couple of very powerful stories in Lucia Berlin’s collection about that process of getting enough to be able to function, managing the gaps where the supply is cut off etc. She doesn’t pull her punches, and kids and jobs flicker in the background. Berlin got through that and had a long career as an academic, so she’s not at the level of Sera and Ben. It’s a close thing at times though.


    • February 16, 2016 at 1:57 pm

      Yes, it stayed with me and it shook me a bit.

      You got what I meant perfectly about Lowry and Bukowski. Both don’t show a pretty picture of alcoholism but they never describe the “addict” part.

      I’ve never heard of Lucia Berlin. Ben had a life in LA. A wife, a job. Leaving Las Vegas is set at the end of his rope. He got divorced, he is jobless and it all seems very deliberate.
      If you read it, come back here and leave a comment. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts about it.


      • February 16, 2016 at 5:47 pm

        I’m thinking about getting it, for sure. Only problem now is that the only version available seems to be the one with the movie tie-in cover – silly maybe, but I absolutely hate those.


        • February 16, 2016 at 9:25 pm

          There’s the e-reader format. You don’t have to see the cover. 🙂 (or an used copy)


  5. February 17, 2016 at 7:19 pm

    I don’t think I would like to read this right now but I’m sure it’s really good. I saw the movie years ago. An amazing book about alcohol addiction is L.A. Kennedy’s Paradise. Very raw, very physical.


    • February 17, 2016 at 9:58 pm

      It is excellent. I’ve never heard of Paradise, I’ll look it up.


  6. February 19, 2016 at 1:33 am

    I too saw the movie – and don’t have much of a desire to repeat that experience, even with prose as powerful as what you quote. It’s striking how few books about alcoholism, though, deal with the real awfulness of the disease. Usually authors will mix the terrible side of alcoholism with the temporary merriment and relief alcohol offers, essentially repeating the same kind of justification that the alcoholic uses to have another drink. One exception I know of is French: Joseph Kessel’s journalistic account Avec les alcooliques anonymes, based on his visits with alcoholics in the U.S. Wrenching.

    One rather unusual book about alcoholism that I much enjoyed is Venedikt Yerofeyev’s Moscow to the End of the Line. It’s funny – until it isn’t – but also avoids anything like the dissection of the disease that O’Brien appears to offer.


    • February 20, 2016 at 9:51 am

      I remember I liked the movie but I don’t recall it much.

      I guess Zola is another one writing about alcohool as a disease but he had ulterior motives.
      O’Brien goes into details but not into gory ones. He just describes Ben’s days and the reader sees how his days revolve around alcohool. He’s not explicit like Zola describing vomit so well you feel queasy. He’s doing what you can do with films: you can make the audience feel the fear and the horror without showing blood. That’s what he does. And I felt as horrified as I would have been if he had laid out all the ugly details.

      I should read more of Kessel. I started with Le Lion in school and it kept me away from him until a couple of years ago when I read Belle de Jour. What a boring book, Le Lion. I’m not good with books with animals, except Gros Câlin, of course.
      Thanks for the recommandation of Venedikt Yerofeyev’s Moscow to the End of the Line


  7. February 19, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    You make a good case for it, so it’s unfortunate I recall the movie so well as I really didn’t like it at all. I found it self-indulgent. The book doesn’t sound like it suffers from that flaw, a hazard I guess of the move from page to screen (and from characters in a novel to Hollywood stars).

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 20, 2016 at 9:57 am

      I think Nicholas Cage was a good choice for Ben.
      What the film can’t conveys as well as the book is the incredible description of Las Vegas. O’Brien was a talented writer, drawing up the atmosphere very well.
      Perhaps you’d like to try Stripper Lessons.


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