Considering John O’Brien

The author of Leaving Las Vegas pretty well fit the cliche of the alcoholic writer. He embodied it so well, in fact, that it killed him.

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.”

This is relevant not just because Leaving Las Vegas is a masterpiece of prose style, albeit one that has drifted off the cultural radar in the last 20 years (virtually everything does, and if I can discover the novel 20 years later, there’s no reason anyone else can’t), but because of the promise destroyed. O’Brien had the talent to become a major American author, perhaps the best of his generation. Instead, he became the embodiment of what became his magnum opus by default. The true artist should always be larger than his work, not bound by it.