Stripper Lessons by John O’Brien is a story about a lonely middle-aged guy (Carroll) in a dead-end job, who spends his evenings watching nude dancers at an L.A. strip club called Indiscretions. He’s friendless and has no interests beyond the strip club. Socially awkward, he worries constantly (both at work and at the club) about saying or doing the wrong thing.
As in his first published novel, Leaving Las Vegas, O’Brien provides no backstory for his main character (or any of the characters). There’s no easy psychological explanation, no hint of childhood trauma. By refusing to divulge any biographical details for such a character, O’Brien makes Stripper Lessons a study of loneliness itself, and that makes the novel hard to put down.
As the story opens, all of Carroll’s hopes and dreams for a meaningful relationship are wrapped up in meeting and talking to one of the new dancers, Stevie, whom he sees as the epitome of erotic beauty. He starts buying three-minute table dances from Stevie at twenty bucks a pop. In Carroll’s fantasy life, these private dances with her are immensely important personal communications.
He loves looking at her breasts. So close, what could be better? He’s seen enough of her now—not to imply that he’s used to it, that would be ridiculous—that he has grown somewhat familiar with her body. This is his second time in a booth with her, two songs the last time, and he feels that they are sharing something. She knows that he’s looking at her breasts. Sometimes she even looks at them while he’s looking at them. It’s something they’re doing together.
Stevie is as self-absorbed as Carroll, and joining her in her self-absorption is the closest he can get to achieving intimacy.
Stripper Lessons has only minimal plot—a table dance at a strip club, a search for a file at the office. None of the characters have a single redeeming human quality. Their sole engagement with each other is through commercial transactions. Yet you keep reading because you don’t want Carroll to end up this way, and it’s partly out of your own self-absorption. You see traces of Carroll’s flaws in yourself and it’s disconcerting. You’re hoping for some kind of redemption.
This novel was published posthumously and the writing is even more flawed than Leaving Las Vegas. But O’Brien is strong and original when he’s simply pouring out feelings of isolation and alienation. While Leaving Las Vegas was exhilarating, this novel reads like a cry for help.