Revisiting "Leaving Las Vegas" and the Final Days of John O'Brien

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Revisiting "Leaving Las Vegas" and the Final Days of John O'Brien

By Brian Whitney 10/23/15

Twenty years after Leaving Las VegasThe Fix talks to the author's sister about O'Brien's lasting impact.

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Leaving Las Vegas
Leaving Las Vegas

It has been a bit over 20 years since John O’Brien killed himself. His book, Leaving Las Vegas is the tale of a man committing slow suicide by drinking himself to death. He loses his job, sells his possessions, purchases as much alcohol as he has money to buy, and goes to Vegas, with a plan to die. There is never any real sense of why he does this, he just does. While by any measurement Leaving Las Vegas is a depressing book, the unsettling feeling that one gets while reading it is nothing compared to learning more about the life of John O’Brien.

Leaving Las Vegas is an amazing book, rare in the fact that despite its depressing topic it has been somewhat successful commercially. It was his first novel and throughout it is clear that O’Brien had talent to burn. It is just as obvious, despite the novel's depressing content, that O’Brien was a sensitive soul. O'Brien committed suicide by gunshot two weeks after learning that Leaving Las Vegas was to be made into a movie. 

O’Brien had been a hardcore alcoholic for much of his life. His sister, Erin O’Brien, said of his drinking: “John's drinking problem started as soon as his drinking started. By the time he was 20, he was taking a clandestine flask to work. By the time he was 26, he was chugging vodka directly from the bottle at morning's first light in order to stave off the shakes.”

In popular culture, it is often written that Leaving Las Vegas was the author's suicide note, perhaps to try and make something ugly a tad bit prettier. His sister takes exception to that. “That story was the fantasy version of John’s exit,” says Erin, “The man who goes to Vegas and fades away in his sleep with a beautiful woman at his side? John’s death was nothing like that.”

Erin O’Brien has spent many years being the keeper of her brother legacy. “John was profoundly misunderstood by most people,” she told me. “There has been very little intelligent commentary out there on him and his work.”

Many people who are hardcore addicts of any kind can identify with the sentiments of this book. When things get dark and they often do when one is addicted, giving in can be very tempting. Leaving Las Vegas has become an allegory for giving up. For just letting your addiction win. To not fight the demons anymore, to just let your addiction take hold.  

When I was in rehab, I met a man who was there because his wife had kicked him out of the house, and had cut off all of his access to money. This man was in investments of some sort and told me “If she hadn’t done that I would have gone all Leaving Las Vegas, and just partied until I was dead.” 

Parts of Leaving Las Vegas read like a virtual instruction manual on how to drink yourself to death. Here, O’Brien explains why his protagonist moved to Vegas in the first place, so he didn’t have to worry about those pesky hours between two and six when he couldn’t find any booze.

“So his life is punctuated by legislative break points and red flags of custom. At six a.m., the hardcore bars are open and the stores can sell, though they sometimes choose to withhold, imposing their morality on some poor, sweating, shaking mess looking for his fix. Nine a.m. is considered a safe opening time for bars that don’t like to admit that people drink that early but can’t let the business slip completely away; bartenders in these places tend to pause disapprovingly for an imperceptible moment before handing over a drink.

"The next milestone is eleven-thirty. At eleven-thirty, everyone is willing to admit that the drinking day has begun and proudly open their doors and pour their drinks. It’s smooth sailing until midnight, when, if they haven’t already, the more reputable bars bail out. Any place that stays open past midnight is probably good until two—actually one-forty-five—the most important time of all. Never let two o’clock happen unless there is more liquor in the house than you could possibly drink in four hours—no small quantity.”

John O’Brien’s addiction was strong. Erin O’Brien wrote this in a piece for the LA Times:  

“Around the time John was writing his book Better, our father invited him to go on a fishing trip with a group of his friends and their sons. He desperately wanted John to attend. Dad doesn't understand, John told me. He was precariously sober at the time. 'I can't go drinking for three days. I can't drink like that anymore. I can't drink like Dad.'

He didn't have to add: Dad's binge will end with a hangover. Mine will leave me in a shaking hell complete with devils bursting through the walls. This was no small point with John. He told me once there was nothing he wanted more than to be able to drink like our father, to be a heavy drinker like he was, a problem drinker, any kind of drinker who could keep drinking. John's addiction was one ladder rung up the double helix from that.” 

Leaving Las Vegas is a depressing book. The movie based on it is a bit less so, but still is meant to move something inside of you, to show you what happens to the addict in his last days.

The thing is though, even a book as depressing as this does not show the true story of addiction and how it can take hold of a brilliant and sensitive person like O’Brien. Below his sister writes of her brother's last days: 

“On March 16, 1994, my father Bill O'Brien fielded a call from Dr. Michael Meyers of the Brotman Medical Center in Los Angeles. My brother John O'Brien was in severe chemical shock and on the verge of life-threatening alcohol withdrawal. The situation was dire. Dad headed to Hopkins and got on the first plane to LA. When he saw his 33-year-old son, he barely recognized him. He was bruised and shaking with delirium tremens. He begged Dad to take him out of the hospital, that it was teeming with devils and demons. Despite the doctor's fervent recommendation that John stay, Dad was worried John would leave anyway and slip directly back into the bottle. So he reluctantly went along with his son and the two went to John's spartan Beverly Hills apartment. Dad stayed for a week, sleeping fitfully on a recliner while John sweated through the long nights.

They sipped chicken soup at Nate 'n Al's Deli in Beverly Hills. They had dinner in Malibu with Lisa O'Brien, John's wife of 13 years, whom he divorced a year earlier when his drinking finally eclipsed the marriage. They took long drives through Death Valley as Dad tried to convince John to enter a long-term rehab. John half-heartedly said he would, but Dad didn't believe him. He tried to formulate a plan that would physically keep his son away from the bottle. Desperate, he contacted the local police about some outstanding misdemeanor, the court date for which was looming. ("Can you trump up the sentence and just lock him up for a month? Away from the booze? Until I can figure out what to do?") Of course, they did not comply. Attempts to find him work on an industrial freighter or other long-sailing ship failed.

In the middle of Dad's visit, an official-looking envelope arrived in the mail. Dad puzzled over it and asked a shaky John what it was all about. "It's this thing about a film contract, Dad," he said. But when Dad returned to Cleveland on March 25, the movie business was the last thing on his mind. He knew my brother was in grave danger and that he could not protect him. He didn't tell us at the time, but he later admitted to Mom and me that when he boarded the plane in LA, he knew he'd never see his son again.” 

A few weeks later O’Brien was dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

They don’t write books or make movies about that aspect of addiction. There is nothing romantic about that sort of ending. O’Brien is often lauded for being brave enough to write about the truth of addiction, but in reality he didn’t because he knew the truth was nothing anyone would want to read.

Brian Whitney is a pseudonym for an author and ghostwriter, his book Raping the Gods became available in the Spring of 2015. He last wrote about reasons to go to rehab and about studies that say porn addiction does not exist.

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