Book Review: Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien

I can’t remember the last time a book made me cry. Not just cry, but I’m talking an ugly cry: big fat alligator tears, ones that made it seem like I just had a death in the family or I watched Pay it Forward for the 102nd time in a row. Leaving Las Vegas did just that.

Written in 1990 by John O’Brien, this story of an alcoholic on borrowed time and the prostitute has been on my bucket list for a while. If you’ve seen the movie, you know the basic story: Ben, a writer with a drinking problem, decides he’s going to live out the rest of his days in the city that never sleeps, drinking as much as he wants, whenever he wants. During his last hurrah, he meets Sera, a prostitute with a heart of gold, and he offers her money for nothing more than her time, and they end up spending the rest of his life together.

The movie, which won Nicolas Cage an Academy Award, is regarded as a cult classic. The book, however, and its author, remain mostly in the film’s shadow. O’Brien’s life came to an abrupt end once he found out the movie rights had been sold; knowing that the author lived and died much in the same fashion as his main character makes the outcome of the story all the more bittersweet.

In the pages of Leaving Las Vegas, readers get a firsthand experience on the finer points of addiction. Readers get to see Ben experience the physical effects his drinking has, like the inability to eat, the inability to sleep, the inability to connect with humans on any meaningful level, and the looming knowledge of what all these things mean for his future. We also learn that Ben, despite his knowledge and his prognosis, is long past the point of being able to care. His addiction and dependence have left him as a shell of the man he had been, and he knows he’s past the point of no return.

“On the third finger of his (left) hand is wrapped a gold wedding band. Rendered barren of its original significance, it is the only tangible relic of a marriage long gone by. Two years earlier he had removed it, having finally convinced a girl that he was indeed of no value to anyone, least of all to her, and certainly not to himself.” (Leaving Las Vegas)

Ben, like Sera, is far from perfect. As an alcoholic and a “working girl”, they are the kind of people “polite” society might avoid, the kind of people others enjoy passing judgment on, without wondering how they found themselves in that situation. It’s their outsider status that draws them to one and other and in each other, they find the compassion the rest of the world can’t spare. It’s certainly not a healthy love, but they aren’t healthy people, trying to live healthy lives. They’re two wayward souls, bouncing around and trying to survive, and find comfort in one and other, albeit a short-lived one.

“More likely he is experiencing an unaddressed second thought, irrational anxiety born from his cognizance that this is to be a one-way trip, and if he can avoid the final journey, he can avoid the final destination. But in fact, he is already well along on this trip, and going to Las Vegas is merely kindling on a fire that is even now raging.” (Leaving Las Vegas)

We never find out what brought Ben to this point in his life, only that he’s been on this path for some time long before the book began. But what brought him to this point doesn’t matter; it’s the fact that he’s on it now, and there’s no turning back. Addiction isn’t like a highway; you don’t keep going until you find an exit ramp, and suddenly find yourself in a happy place. Once it has you, it fights tooth and nail to hold on. By the time we meet Ben, he’s realized his addiction has finally won.

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