Leaving Las Vegas , the first novel by John O’Brien, is the disturbing and emotionally wrenching story of a woman who embraces life and a man who rejects it. Sera is a prostitute, content with the independence and routine she has carved out for herself in a city defined by recklessness. But she is haunted by a specter in a yellow Mercedes, a man from her past who is committed to taking control of her life again. Ben is an alcoholic intent on drinking his way toward an early death. Newly arrived from Los Angeles, he survived the four-hour intoxicated drive across the desert with his entire savings in his wallet and nothing else left to lose. Looking to satisfy hungers both material and existential, Ben and Sera stumble together on the strip and discover in each other a respite from their unforgiving lives.
A testimony to the raw talent of its young author, Leaving Las Vegas is a compelling story of unconditional love between two disenfranchised and lost soulsan overlooked American classic.
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About the Author
John O’Brien was born in 1960 and lived most of his life in California until his death in 1994.
Read an Excerpt
Sucking weak coffee through a hole in the plastic lid of a red and green styrofoam cup, Sera spots a place to sit down. She has been walking around now for at least two hours and wants desperately to rest. Normally she wouldn't dare hang around this long in front of a 7-11, but the curb looks high and, having recently accumulated a fresh coat of red paint, not too dirty. She drops down hard on the cold curb and hugs her knees, bending her head into the privacy of the dark little cave created by her arms. Her eyes follow the stream of light running between her two thighs, down to where it concludes in black lace, aptly exposed by her short leather skirt.
She throws back her head, and her dark brown hair fans around her shoulders, dances in the turbulence created by a passing Sun Bus; a window framed profile begins to turn and vanishes in a cloud of black exhaust. In the red gloss of her recently applied lipstick there is a tiny reflection of the glowing convenience store sign, its cold fluorescent light shining much too white to tan or warm the beautiful face appealing beneath it. She modestly lowers her knees, only to have the black blazer fall open as she leans back on her elbows, revealing her small breasts under a sheer lace camisole. Making no effort to cover herself, she turns her head; her dark green eyes, protected by long mascara-laden lashes, scan up and down Las Vegas Boulevard.
Tadatadatacheeda tacheek tacheek sheeka she catches on her lips an unrefined tune, already in progress. All but inaudible, composed clumsily out of fragments overheard in casino lounges, it nonetheless seems to guide the passing traffic, coercing the rumble and whine of the street to perform in symphony with the slide and twirl that exist in her head. Across the street — not yet over the shiver, nor to the goods — a dormant construction site, populated with skeletal cranes raising adolescent towers, stands smugly, silently, and in dubious approval. It wears the green and blue hues of the night. It knows not whence it came. It will lend her the benefit of the doubt. It will accompany her on the long, hard, painful ride in a car filled with chums. Sera's arms are weak, but her pulse is strong. She smacks shut her lips and waits for a trick.
The warm air gusts through an invisible maze. Sera watches little dust tornadoes rise and fall, pieces of litter riding on the currents. She finds in her purse a foil-wrapped towelette, salvaged from some now forgotten fast-food meal. Opening it, she discreetly reaches under her camisole and wipes her breasts, then the back of her neck. Looming in the distance is a hill, or mountain, or some such overrated nonsense.
She watches as a staggering drunk, heading east on the near sidewalk, takes a dive directly in front of her. He lies motionless, and Sera, slightly concerned, calls to him.
"Hey! Are you alive?" she says.
He doesn't respond, and she knows that he's probably just passed out and that now she'll have to move before the police come and pick him up.
She tries again. "Hey, you better get up before the cops come. You want me to help you?"
He groans out what sounds like no and starts to move. Feeling embarrassed for him she looks away, and when she looks back, after scanning the street for heat, he is gone.
His point was made, and he moved along, in keeping with the tangential nature that must consume at least one of them. There is a bottle in his future — perhaps sooner a glass — elsewhere on the line. Sera is a circle, twenty-nine years around.
Once a small girl in the east, she now lives here. There was time spent in Los Angeles, but the story that she knows is working well here, working at its best here, and she wishes to stay here in Las Vegas, where she arrived long enough ago that she now calls it home when speaking with herself. Her perspicacity intact — indeed, augmented by the rough spots — she came here deliberately and hewed out a life on her own terms which happens to fit quite nicely with local hustle-bustle policies. The tough, desperate life of the fictional prostitute, if she ever really knew it, is now long behind her; the tough is in fact manageable; the desperate turned out to be a not-very exclusive club. In any case, she can handle it, all of it. There will always be dark characters, but her life is good; it is as she wishes it to be.
She can bring the most out of most of the men that she does; this is the hardest part, but it is also the best part. Unsuspecting, they are distracted by their imminent ejaculations and rarely realize that they have let slip some tiny communication, some clue to their identity, some test of themselves. Sera is far away from the well-known, overblown and arbitrary definitions of what accomplishment is. She sees these guys while they're fucking her. Sometimes she talks to these guys. Some times these guys talk to her. This is a good thing.
She stands and walks to a trash can with her soiled towelette, pausing along the way to pick up a discarded piece of cellophane, de-Twinkied and blowing across the 7-11 parking lot.
And she is a good thing, good at this thing. Paying for and using her, there are always men available. The tricks turn to her, for she glistens with the appealing inaccessibility of the always introspective. They turn to the buyable quench — no lie, a promise in the panties — and she plays out the bargain with the competence of one consistently able to hit well the mark. No matter how long it has been since she last worked, she is never without a full arsenal of idiosyncratic performances, ready in an instant to fall into the groove and take command without missing a beat. Her tricks go away quietly, their burden of dissatisfaction lessened sufficiently to fulfill the terms of any implied agreement that may have been struck.
The men that come to her are varied in appearance as well as disposition, though most share a few common denominators. They all are able to define a need and then take steps to satisfy it. Not lost in self-doubt over their masculinity, either at terms with it or indifferent to it, they come to and effect the logical connection between lust and money. They can translate one hundred dollars into thirty minutes of renting a female body, and they perceive this translation exactly as it is: a piece of commerce, not a profound commentary. Many are seeking fuel for masturbation, a highlight in the cycle, tangible experience on which to outline the fantasy. These men all find delight in the opportunity to relate to a woman on sexual terms with complete candor. Leaving at home all the potential drawbacks of the sex act — many their own doing — they are now in a clean environment where you ask for something and either get it or don't, without putting at risk the whole circumstance. They are maintaining. They are maximizing solution and minimizing difficulty. They have generally similar, specifically different, reasons for seeing her. Sera turns and walks to the street, to the slowing car, to the greeting, to the initial rap.
Cued by the fall of the power window, she leans to the car. She is not in, not even near the car, but with the flair of an illusionist she has the driver believing she is very close indeed. The perennial tingle in her tummy, a smile of measured insouciance, then: "Hi!" He'll be okay. He's about fifty, a little nervous, a regular bather, rather unattractive but with affable eyes. She tilts her head, catches in the rear window the red and green reflection of the convenience store sign, and says with an unprofessional giggle, "Were you looking to spend some time, or are you just here for a Slurpee?"
Managing a smile — though this is clearly not what he expected — he says, "Well ... yes. How much is a ... Slurpee?" With this a twitch and a wider grin: trying to play along.
Sera, deciding to abandon the metaphor before it gets too precious, presses her lips together appraisingly and whispers with a teenage wink, "One hundred. One hour max at ... what hotel?"
He gives her the name of a rather well-known and gaudy establishment, brightening at the opportunity to invoke it, and Sera could have almost mouthed the name simultaneously. He coughs, slightly uncomfortable again, and asks, "What's ... umm, what's included? I mean, what will you do?"
"Well, unless I miss my guess, I should be able to do just about anything you're inclined to ask for." Realizing that they're spending too much time in such an overt situation, she looks around quickly and says confidentially, "We'd better work this out pretty quick."
"Ninety dollars," he blurts out: a real pro.
She likes him, gives him an A for effort. "Fine. Then you'll be happy to hear that I've got change for a hundred."
He reaches over and pushes the car door open. Sera climbs in, and before reaching the hotel they manage to discuss prostitution, black girls, and his children — in that order. One block down from the 7-11, in a yellow Mercedes, which is parked in the shadow of a silver camper and bears expired British Columbian plates, sits a sallow-skinned man, cutting a lone figure indeed.
On the eleventh floor of her trick's hotel, having survived a misdirected march resulting from a wrong turn off the elevator, Sera lies on a surprisingly lumpy mattress and feels the familiar friction in her vagina. She stares at the ceiling, vaguely preoccupied despite herself, unable to give her full attention to the middle-aged man who is pumping away on top of her, but also aware that his is not the sort that would notice or care. He'll come in a couple of minutes, then hurriedly whisk her from his night. Practical, not overly abusive, his type is her bread and butter. Though she did blush, momentarily and despite herself, when in his car he remarked of her beauty and smiled for her.
She is thinking, as his freckled shoulder nudges rhythmically against her chin, of another trick that she turned years ago, on the corner of Sunset and Western in Los Angeles. (He was quiet and polite, and they quickly came to an agreement. She waited as he parked his car then took him down the block to a house that she had access to and which was kept for such purposes. Upon entering what would have been the living room, she instructed him to give twenty dollars to the fat Mexican sitting on the couch watching television. He did and the Mexican pointed to an open door next to an empty crib behind them. Sera led the man to the assigned room, carefully stepping around the four or five infants that crawled on the dirty carpet, crying and in various states of undress. The room contained a dresser and, surprisingly, an actual bed, not just a cot. Having tucked away her newest hundred dollar bill, she undressed. He had already taken a position lying on his back, so she put the rubber on him and, after sucking him for a few minutes, eased herself onto him. Twenty minutes later the time knock sounded on the door and he still hadn't come. Sera felt somehow guilty and offered to secure ten more minutes, but he thanked her and refused. He had hardly spoken a word the whole time, and after he was dressed, she let him hug her and kiss her cheek. He tipped her with another hundred and went back to his car. Ultimately she was glad to have the extra money, as she really didn't feel like working for some time after that.)
The man ejaculates, gripping the mattress with one tense, white fist, Sera with the other. He rolls off of her and lies still, waiting for the turmoil to settle in his body, precious few years away, she guesses, from the time when moments like this will produce in him secret fears, imagined pains in his arm and chest. Sera, older and more weary than she was in Hollywood, still living in a world that plays in a time window not yet sullied by death sentence venereal diseases, only occasionally insists on a rubber, relying on her judgment, experience, and instinct to tell her when. She reaches for a nearby towel and holds it between her legs as she walks to the bathroom. She cleans, dresses, says goodbye before shutting the door.
She smiles at her reflection in a polished copper panel until, fully descended, the elevator doors open to the perennial cacophony of the casino. There is a poetry to this noise, and Sera has yet to tire of it. She looks her part; anyhow, the real mistakes are made in the larger rooms. So it is that a steel-eyed man with long and oft manicured fingernails blocks her path with his well-fed bulk and holds up two black disks. One hundred dollar chips, these, held each in its own well-kept hand, speciously and between their noses as if they were tokens of hypnosis. Disregarding passers by, he slowly lowers the chips and presses them against Sera's chest, one each on the tips of her breasts. A wry grin on her face, she follows his hands with her eyes and continues to stare at them until the moment becomes protracted and uncomfortable.
"What's the problem?" says the man, dropping his hands. "You on strike?" This amuses him, and he walks away laughing loudly, so as to confirm to anyone who might be watching that it was he who commanded the situation all along.
(She couldn't help it. He had bought them all that beer, and she had had more than her share. But it didn't help, 'cause when her turn came she was so nervous that she peed right on his hand. He got mad and looked like he was gonna hit her, but he didn't.
He stopped and looked around at them, all her girlfriends laughing at him, and he took his hand out of his own pants and walked back to the clearing in the front of the park. Sera was sorry to have ruined things, sorrier still about the look on his face as he left, like he had just gotten beat up.)
"Aren't you a cute little trick," says another good-natured, lecherous cab driver to Sera as she falls into his backseat. He chats about his last fare and takes her back to the part of the Strip that she likes to work.
She, feeling pretty good about finding herself in yet another harmless evening, chats back freely. This is standard fare, replete with the simple details of breathing and talking, of tasting and swallowing, of washing and drying, of watching and defining. She can and will do this forever. Rare in her race, rarer still in her class, she touches — even now — the things that others only grasp for futilely at the instant of unavailability. Her grass is very green indeed.
And to it she returns as she rises from the cab and glances down the street, only to glimpse the same yellow Mercedes that she noticed earlier. The car backs quickly out of view, leaving behind the urgent echo of hot rubber on pavement and a protesting horn amidst the waning scream of internal combustion.
This is bad news at best, for she once knew a man with a penchant for Mercedes and a proclivity for amateur surveillance, a man lurking in her past, lurking, hopefully, elsewhere. There is only one other girl in sight, and she was not here earlier, nor does she appear very attentive now. Furthermore, as far as Sera can tell only one thing happened immediately prior to the car's hasty departure, and that was her obvious sighting of it.
She settles on one more look at the empty space next to the silver camper, and relegating the matter to the back of her mind, she turns her attention back to the business at hand. After all, this Mercedes — this yellow Mercedes — is not quite in the same league with the very expensive, very tacky, gold-plated German chariots in her past, and it is not at all unusual for girls working the Strip to be watched for hours by nervous men or cheap-thrill masturbators.
("This is what you are, Sera! This is what I say you are!"
She waited, almost hungrily, for the blade, the metal that would go into her flesh then be in her flesh. She wanted it, perhaps, because her experience had taught her that that which begins will also end. Face down, she bit the pillow.
"Sera!" he cried. He was crying now. There were tears.
But she preferred to concentrate on the sensation of warm, flowing blood. It seemed the simpler of the two fluids.)
The Strip is swinging up, acting up as the midwesterners embrace their newly found early a.m. options. Sera really has no immediate need to be here, as she has earned enough already tonight for a full day at the tables tomorrow, but working fulltime has become a sort of habit for her, and she just doesn't feel right when she goes home much before two in the morning. She decides that she's about one trick away from her morning shower, just as three college boys, each wearing numbered jerseys and carrying the ubiquitous Heineken bottles, walk toward her from the street.
"How much will it cost us to fuck you?" says the tallest, amidst the titters of the other two. His shirt bears the number sixteen — his age minus three, she guesses.
Sera starts to turn away, then pauses to button her blazer. "Sorry guys, but I don't know what you mean. Anyway, I never date more than one guy at a time," she says.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Leaving Las Vegas"
Copyright © 1990 John O'Brien.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
One of the most underappreciated books I have ever read. Spare prose, simple dialogue, honest characters, and one of the most authentic love stories ever written. There is a line on the last page that I will never forget. This is a tough read, but if you can see beauty in strange places, it is a worthwhile and rewarding experience.
Never has a book or character so completely broken me down emotionally. I have never encountered a character who brought hope, sadness, sympathy, and anger all wrapped into one. O'Brien creates a character that lives in all of us, although we may not admit it, he gives us hope of acheving true love in the most dire circumstances. O'Brien's ability to creat such a beautiful love between two disenchanted and lost souls is a reminder that the world lost a truly great writer
The thing about Leaving Las Vegas is that it doesn't drift. Just as the lead character is set on drinking himself to death in Vegas, so the plot thickens with tastefulness until that last drink. And I say this although I am not an imbiber. Ranks right up there with Heinrich Boll's The Clown and Camus' The Fall.
One of the most brilliant stories ever written. A saga of unqualified acceptence, and a magnificent character study of what is to be an alcholic. O'Brien captures perfectly the heart of what humanity's two strongest emotions are-love and determination. Beyond alcholism, the book uniquely reveals the gripping conflict between the integrity of oneself and love for another. It's a wonderful novel, and I cannot recommend it enough.