"...those who enjoy the darker side of the genre are in for some serious thrills with this..."
Laura Wilson, The Guardian
Published in the UK by Polygon (March 19th, '09) and in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Nov '09).
Lost City: the Las Vegas of John O'Brien and Hunter S. Thompson
by Jay Jeff Jones
Two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multicoloured uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
Vodka, whiskey, gin.
Two different destinies, two different books, two different cars stocked with supplies for a life changing journey from the city of the angels to the city of the meadows – or fertile valley, depending on where you take your translation from. Original maps simply call it "Vegas" as used by people who consider themselves to be high-rolling ding-a-lings and ratpackers. It owes its naming to an artesian well discovered on the Old Spanish Trail to California and that later eased the thirst of gold rush 49ers.
A good place to get a drink then, and this is given as the main reason for the journey of John O’Brien’s character Ben, the oblivion-bound alcoholic in the novel Leaving Las Vegas.
For both Ben and Raoul Duke in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, the point is that the city is the ultimate American playground, where the emporia of pleasure and excess never close. For Ben this simply means never again having to drink Listerine in the long bleak pause of early morning before the first bar opens its doors in LA. For Hunter Thompson Las Vegas was not only where he cynically sought "the heart of the American Dream" but "...what the whole world would be doing on a Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war."
The impetus of events in both books requires the constant guzzling of cash fuel as Vegas is the pure, unapologetic engine of American materialism. Thompson as Raoul squanders his expense accounts and advances and still skips out on bills. He and his sidekick, the menacing Dr. Gonzo, are psychedelic terrorists, ravaging hotel rooms and crashing cars.
Ben’s endless binge evaporates his severance pay, runs up credit card debts he doesn’t expect to be around to settle and he sells his Rolex and car for some walking around money.
For years O’Brien (pictured right) failed to make it as a writer and Leaving Las Vegas was repeatedly rejected by publishers. Watermark, a small scale, quality press in Wichita, Kansas finally brought it out in 1990. Considering the obscurity of the publisher, it received good reviews and O’Brien suddenly found himself the flavour of the month. In spite of past struggles, he seemed to take a perverse pleasure in turning down a string of Hollywood deals before finally agreeing to rewrite the alcoholism classic, Days of Wine and Roses.
For whatever usual tinseltown reasons, the project stalled and O’Brien began to drink heavily before splitting up from his wife. The movie business interest started to go cold, the money ran out and he found a job in a coffee shop. In March 1994 he was admitted to hospital with chemical shock and his father called to take him home. Among the unopened mail that had piled up was a film option for the novel. Just two weeks before the production deal was finalised, on April 10, he shot himself. He was 33.
Fear & Loathing was first serialised in Rolling Stone magazine in 1972 and not made into a major motion picture until 1998. The delay hardly restrained Thompson’s trajectory as a literary celebrity and iconic hardass. The book became a worldwide best seller, has never been out of print and Thompson capitalised on its success for 34 years before taking aim at his own conflicted brain at the age of 67.
In spite of its critical success as a novel, Leaving Las Vegas only became known to wider extent on account of the Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for the film and because Nicholas Cage won both for his portrayal of Ben. Although he is the lesser of the two main characters in the novel, the film makes Ben the lead. Despite the awards Cage hardly does justice to O’Brien’s character.
When the film tries to establish a motive for Ben’s decision to drink himself to death, gives him a professional screenwriting background and even a surname, it loses the bleak purity of the novel.
For most of the novel we are confined to the solitary and precarious worlds of Ben and Sera who don’t get together until 61 pages from the end. We first meet Sera working on the street and living in some aimless repetition of trick turning, as compulsive as Ben’s drinking. When she’s not dressed up and heading out on the game, life doesn’t seem to have a point for her. It validates, not necessarily her femininity, but her purpose in being alive.
For some reason, and it’s clearly one from the dark subconscious of O’Brien, almost all her tricks are rough business. Both in the novel and in Elizabeth Shue’s uninhibited film portrayal, Sera is a better woman than her life suggests. If this had been Tralala or any other of Hubert Selby Jr.’s ravaged floozies, you’d see why they are snared into their battered lives. O’Brien makes Sera from something else, a masochistic compulsion that may have been as much of his own psychology as he finally claimed Ben to be.
The sex that Sera has with most of her johns and her pimp is painful, humiliating and protracted. It’s Story of O and de Sade and everything Andrea Dworkin said heterosexual penetration was really about. In the novel the would-be gangster pimp that reclaims her is ruthless Omani who usually doesn’t "damage the merchandise", i.e. mark a girl’s face, but instead disciplines them with cuts on the buttocks.
O’Brien’s style, at times quite beautiful and poetically inventive, shifts in and out of Sera’s mind. She remembers finding the "first true friend" of her life in a 16 year runaway girl. The girl had moved in, had occasional nonchalant sex with her and then fallen into heroin and trick turning before disappearing, almost certainly dead.
Hunter Thompson wrote very little about women (or sex) and in Fear & Loathing they appear in anecdotal moments as staple Vegas commodities: hotel maids, waitresses, showgirls and tarts. There is the grotesque runaway Lucy who Gonzo drugs, seduces and deserts. Raoul’s suggestion is that they keep her stoned and rent her out to cops who are attending a District Attorneys’ conference on narcotics. Biographical comment indicates that Thompson was a misogynist and a wife abuser.
In contrast Ben seems to crave pity or humiliation from women. He is drawn to Sera, somewhat differently than he was attracted to other females, some of them also hookers, when we observed him in Los Angeles. We know that he likes the chilly upmarket cocktail bars for some occasions and the stale neighbourhood dives for others. These are joints and episodes just around the corner from Charles Bukowski. Excepting that for Bukowski (like Thompson) waking up on a soiled toilet floor is part of the repertory of wild genius and for O’Brien it’s the penultimate abasement.
Unlike the movie, the novel’s LA scenes are subjective, insistent and fixed in the cold-blooded certainty than Ben cannot escape his fate… as if Camus had written him.
After Ben and Sera meet and fall in love late in the book the drama of their lives has been so tautly wound by O’Brien that the final pages seem fuller and longer than they really are. Just like Raoul and Gonzo they have trouble in the casinos and bars, marked out by her profession and his drunken lack of self control.
As truly and suddenly as they love each other they never have sex and not for a second seem in danger of redeeming each other.
When Ben says, "Maybe I should follow you and ask one of your tricks what it’s like to sleep with you," Sera replies, "They wouldn’t know. Maybe you should just ask me sometime. I’d be happy to show you."
In all O’Brien completed three novels; the other two, Stripper Lessons and The Assault on Tony’s (polished off by his sister Erin), were posthumously published and available these days from Grove Press.
Unlike Thompson, O’Brien appears to have had a storybook childhood and family life. He was a well-behaved teenager who read a lot and didn’t drink until after he married his high school sweetheart and they went on the road. Once settled in Venice West he acquired tattoos and a black leather jacket and began to write.
O’Brien described Leaving Las Vegas as a suicide note, as much as saying this in a call to his New York agent Ray Powers only days before he shot himself.
Hunter Thompson was as famous for his high functionality as he was for missing deadlines. The marvel of his shameless lifestyle was how much fun he made it seem, the never-ending binge on Wild Turkey, hallucinogens and large calibre weapons.
He once admitted, "Obviously my drug use is exaggerated or I would be long since dead." But right till the end his consumption was immoderate by any standard. The effects of this and the corrosions of age had led to an operation on his spine and hip replacements, a hard reality for a man who had written himself into a myth of eternal intemperance. "No more fun," his suicide note complained.
Fear and Loathing is an LSD mutated hyper-commedia with endless close calls that skirt disaster, outrageous buffoonery, cruel slapstick and the non-stop ridicule of authority. It is also a showcase for Thompson’s occasional straight-faced sermons on the end of the 60s and the loss of idealism, the busted flush of a special era. It’s a bitterness that echoes through everything that he subsequently wrote. In one of his paranoid throwaways he said, "In Las Vegas they kill the weak and deranged."
The talent of O’Brien in his first wondrous novel is the devilish way he persuades us to watch while the weak and deranged destroy themselves.
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Copyright © Jay Jeff Jones, 2008
JAY JEFF JONES is an American who has lived in Britain for many years. In the US and Canada he worked as a journalist, actor and private investigator’s assistant; in the UK as a commercial writer, art director and producer/director of commercials and video programmes. He currently lives in Dartmouth. He has published stories and poetry in a wide range of magazines, winning a Transatlantic Review erotica award, and was the editor of the late 70s literary magazine New Yorkshire Writing. Several of his plays, including The Lizard King, have had productions in London , New York and Los Angeles.