The film version of Leaving Las Vegas is a depressing view of an alcoholic (Ben) who is drinking himself to death, and his touching friendship with a prostitute (Sera) he meets in Las Vegas in the final weeks of his life.
The novel Leaving Las Vegas is an exhilarating experience inside the head of an alcoholic who has decided to drink himself to death, and his touching friendship with a prostitute (Sera) he meets in Las Vegas in the final weeks of his life.
The movie provides an easy (trite) psychological explanation of Ben’s choice—he has lost his family. Grove Press tried the same thing—their publicity department put out at the time of the novel’s release that Ben was a failed writer. But in O’Brien’s actual novel, Ben is never described as a failed writer. He in fact doesn’t remember how he got to this point, and moreover, doesn’t care, and that’s critical to the meaning of the novel. Ben has made a free choice. When Sera, the prostitute, asks Ben why he’s killing himself, he answers, “I don’t remember. I just know that I want to.”
Maybe, he goes on to suggest, he’s just killing himself as a way to drink.
Every moment and every aspect of Ben’s final emotional journey is psychologically perfect, and it’s impossible to put the book down as he carries out his plan. Though he’s certain of his decision, he has to overcome his fear to actually launch it. So the first thing he sets out to do is make his decision irrevocable. He gives away or sells all his possessions, then burns the items too personal to sell. He resolves his few remaining relationships, with his landlord and the like. He gets himself from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, because in Vegas he can get liquor 24 hours a day. He runs up his American Express card for expenses, to make sure he’ll have enough cash to see his plan through to the end.
Step by step, he removes himself from all of the annoyances and responsibilities of modern daily life. He no longer has to deal with pretending to work, or the disapproval of bartenders at places where he’s been a regular, or the necessity of stocking up enough liquor to get through the hours between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., when all the bars in L.A. are legally required to close.
He can at last let go, and drink as much as he needs to stave off the physical pain of withdrawal, polishing off a fifth of vodka to feel okay before getting out of bed in the morning, and making sure he has a full glass of booze with him in the shower. He thinks with a smile of all the credit card charges he’ll never have to pay.
It’s not all exhilaration. O’Brien also deals plainly with Ben’s physical degradation—the blackouts, the nausea—and his distress at his increasing alienation from normal people. But Ben faces it with clarity and resolve. He accepts all aspects of his choice, and his acceptance elevates him to a state of grace.
The short term that he has assigned to his own life is having its effect on his mentality beyond his day to day conduct change. He believes that dying, dying soon, is an unalterable fact of his life, and as it becomes more deeply rooted in his reality, he thinks of it no more than anyone else thinks of their own natural death; he is aware of it, but not obsessed with it. Subtly, though, his actions have taken on added significance to him. The governors have all been removed and he now looks for the direct and deliberate, embracing the aggressive and shunning the abusive. With the specter of the finite looming very near, Ben can almost envisage this time as a microcosm of his whole life, a narrow but tall area, to be played very intensely… But changing his life, extending it, is no longer an option that would occur to him.
For Ben, Sera is a part of this intense reliving. For Sera, Ben is simply a man who doesn’t judge her or force her to lie. He is kind to her, someone she can talk to, “a splash of spring water to rinse off some of the toxic waste she lives in.”
Sera, like Ben, refuses to make up explanations for her life. She owns her life—in fact, she gambles with it, taking calculated risks with tricks to prove to herself that she’s still in control.
While the psychology of O’Brien’s main characters is flawless, O’Brien is proof that literary technique is not critical to writing a great novel. O’Brien is king of the terrible metaphor:
Across the street…a dormant construction site, populated with skeletal cranes raising adolescent towers, stands smugly, silently, and in dubious approval. It wears the green and blue hues of the night. It knows not whence it came. It will lend her the benefit of the doubt.
He’s also the master of the totally pointless passage, such as this one where he takes more than a hundred words to get his character through the door of a casino for a drink:
Arriving [at the Tropicana], she pays the driver and approaches the multitudinous glass doors which serve as an effective barrier against only the hot desert itself, and nothing else. Penetration of the first bank lands her in a half-ass air lock, in which she hears the muffled bells and buzzers from an army of gaming machines along with the faint remnants of the sound of traffic on the street, all led by the uneven thuw-wumping beat of the rotating revolving doors. Here the air has no temperature, or every temperature. So pausing only briefly to acclimate herself, she pushes onward through the second bank of doors and enters the casino proper, where it’s always really loud.
He provides a number of hilarious stabs at profundity, including the most overwrought description of a casino gaming floor I’ve ever read:
… The roulette wheel divides the world into red and black, even and odd, or the more specific numbered prejudices of one to thirty-six. Occasionally the freakish green zero or double zero, real losers, are favored by the silver ball. Blurred to the eye, rolling on a wheel, the little sphere rides its race indecisively, eventually dropping to the slower, lower track of imminent commitment…
At the blackjack tables dealers stand behind other dealers, awaiting their turns to shuffle up and take the house’s chances against the inept infantry of American gamblers.
And one of his characters, Al the pimp, is a bafflingly bad cliché.
But none of this matters, because what O’Brien was good at is so important—the purity of his vision, and his ability to draw the reader into the rush of his characters’ experience.
O’Brien committed suicide at the age of thirty-five, two weeks after learning that Paramount was going to be making a movie of his novel. His father called the novel his son’s suicide note. But it seems clear to me that O’Brien was writing about more than just his own struggle.
Sera chooses life, while Ben chooses death, but what the characters share is courage and consciousness. It’s the consciousness of the artist—a refusal to look away from reality or make up reassuring fables about it.