Leaving Las Vegas, Johnny, and a monster named Press

My brother John took his life in April 1994, a few weeks after he had signed a contract committing his first novel Leaving Las Vegas to film. The movie went on to garner numerous accolades as well as an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Nicolas Cage.

Myths swarm around Leaving Las Vegas. I found a couple of them on Wikipedia, wherein there were untruths about John’s Rolex and a childhood acting stint. I wrote about them here. A Wikipedian read that article and promptly called for me to be fired and sent off with letters of denunciation. The items were removed, but Wiki discussions immediately ensued, saying that additional sources should be cited before the items I “claimed” to be false were reinstated in the articles. (Hm, maybe Mom and I just don’t remember John traveling from Ohio to Los Angeles at the age of ten in order to appear in a film.)

The Wiki Leaving Las Vegas page is still inundated with errors and conjecture, but I’ve just got too much else to do. Moral: careful what you believe on Wikipedia.

Here’s some things you can believe:

Johnny gifted four copies of his book. One to his wife, one to our parents, one to our maternal grandmother and one to his high school Latin teacher (Mr. Sors was my Latin teacher as well). I am 42 years old and still call Mr. Sors Mr. Sors. He attended my first book signing in autumn 2005.

In the immediate aftermath of John’s death, my father sat at his desk for hour after hour after hour with the death certificate in front of him and nothing else. The box marked “Cause of Death” was so violently blackened with a ball point pen that the paper was torn through.

Johnny loved airplane food.

Dad discovered he had a life-threatening aortic aneurysm within days of John’s suicide. The subsequent surgery nearly killed him. In October 2002, he died suddenly from an aortic dissection while undergoing emergency bypass surgery.

Bob Dylan influenced John more than any other artist. He had his high school diploma made out to “John Dylan O’Brien,” which infuriated my parents. John’s middle name was Steven.

The gun with which he shot himself is in my house. Mom gave it to my husband when she found it after Dad died. “I can’t deal with it,” she said. People look at you quizzically when you tell them you still have the gun. What, I want to ask them, exactly is the correct protocol in this situation?

John thought Stevie Nicks was breathtaking. He also adored Gladys Night.

The assertion that the novel was John’s suicide note was born in a personal letter I wrote to Cage as soon as I learned he was to play Ben. The Movie People glommed onto it, then someone in the media assigned it to Dad and we just left it alone.

John loved the Star Trek episode “The Tholian Web.”

The copy of “Leaving Las Vegas” Johnny gave Gram bore the following inscription:


Saturday I received my first two copies; this is one of them.
I want you to know how much I love you and think about you, how I’ve always felt a special bond between us, and how I wish that we were together right now.
20 May 1991

You can be sure that Stephen Hunter didn’t know about that when he wrote the following about Leaving Las Vegas in the Baltimore Sun on Dec. 17, 1995:

Written by one John O’Brien, a thinly disguised memoir from the hell of his own largely unsuccessful life, it had been published in a small edition of a thousand or so. And it was something else: a suicide note disguised as a novel. O’Brien killed himself before the film went into production.

My guess is that neither did John Stark Bellamy II when he wrote the following in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on June 30, 1996:

Before blowing his brains out in the spring of 1994, the Cleveland native, a sad, terminal alcoholic, wrote “Leaving Las Vegas,” a hellishly disgusting portrait of, well, a sad, terminal alcoholic whose fictional torments owed much to O’Brien’s autobiographical degradation.

Questions of literary merit were almost irrelevant: The book seemed as squirmingly authentic and as unflinchingly graphic as the gritty, award-winning movie that was made after O’Brien’s suicide. Of such stuff are legends made, or as they said in Memphis the day Elvis died: good career move.

That beauty ran in my hometown paper and my parents, Gram and both my paternal grandparents were alive to see it. I read it the same day I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. It was part of a review of The Assault on Tony’s, which was one of two posthumous publications of John’s. I wrote the last chapter of “Tony’s” as well as an afterward, about which I still harbor profound ambivalence. I clearly stated which segments I authored in the afterward and went through painstaking care to keep John’s work as untouched as possible, arguing with editors and proofreaders all through the process. Much of the book was angry, there were copious secret family references. The project was an emotional trauma of the highest order for me. Hence, you can imagine my fury when I read Malcolm L. Johnson commentary that ran in the Hartford Courant on June 23, 1996:

Perhaps inspired by the success of the film version of O’Brien’s first book, the writer’s sister, Erin, addressed herself to the task of completing “Assault.” … Reading “Assault,” a brief novel broken up into terse chronicles of days of slugging back hits of J&B and vodka, one wonders how much of the prose was left behind by John O’Brien, and how much was cooked up by Erin. One hopes that the finished unfinished novel is not what its writer intended, because “Assault” frequently feels both racist and sexist.

The kick is nearly as sharp as it was 11 years ago.

“Tony’s” was all about my brother’s difficult relationship with Dad. Had Johnson contacted me, we could have talked about that, or the fact that I also felt parts of the book were sexist and racist and how that surprised the hell out of me. Maybe then Johnson could have pulled back a layer, written something evocative and meaningful and revealed a truth instead of hurting me.

Some other pertinent links:

Stripper Lessons was John’s other posthumous novel. Despite Amazon’s insistence that this book was written by Maureen O’Brien, it was not. (I just discovered this snafu while writing this post. Wish me luck getting that corrected.)

This is what it’s like to get the phone call.

Here is an interview I did about John and his work for the Italian publication StradaNove.

I am here, John. I see the light and the truth. I hear the sound of falling water. I am writing it all down. I remember. I will protect you, I promise I will protect you. I am your sister.



Smile! You’re on Canted Camera!

The Harper’s Iraq lies piece with sources, efforts of which originated in this MeFi thread.

And fingerprinting and photographing foreign visitors is overkill. It’s bad enough that visitors are subjected to a silly little quiz (“Have you ever been a Communist?”) that, embarassingly, demonstrates how little this nation has evolved from its McCarthyist paranoia half a century ago, or that this is one of the few Western nations in which citizens and non-citizens are split up after a twelve-hour transatlantic flight, rather than conjoined in one queue (not always the case going the other way), with instructions articulated only in English. In fact, nothing of these questions, the fingerprints or the photographs is mentioned on the DHS page referencing procedure (again, only in English).

But I don’t see how photographs compared against databases will stop the true professionals, particularly when any real criminal can undergo plastic surgery, grow a beard, shave his eyebrows, or do any number of things to avoid being detected by a guy at customs who ain’t exactly the brightest bulb at the airport.

What’s interesting about the US VISIT program is that it’s actually been in the works since 2000, which suggests that this privacy-invasive program isn’t a direct countermeasure to Sept. 11. The Post article quotes spokesman Mike Milne as follows, “If we have your information in the system, it protects you as a passenger from someone being able to use your documentation.” Oh really? So say Joe Visitor comes into the nation, gets his picture taken by the DHS, and then gets his credit card stolen by some serious thief who uses the card (before Joe Visitor cancels it) to buy “questionable” goods like bullets or raw compnents with which to construct an explosive. Given what we’ve seen of the INS wilfully damning without burden of proof, and such sickening stories as the treatment of Maher Arer by U.S. authorities, can we really count on a non-ICC compliant government to stand by habeas corpus? (And here are a few more side issues: (1) How secure are the databases? (2) What other information is being compared against the photograph? (3) If accused of a charge, does the visitor have access to this data or would their right to fair trial be obviated by a military-style tribunal? (4) Given the current spending spree of the U.S. government — projected to hit a $500 billion deficit in five years — is there any possibility that the government will sell these databases off to a marketing organization to stave off insolvency?)

But the silliest thing about US VISIT is that anyone coming into the United States by land will not be photographed. Given how easy it is to book a flight to Canada, rent a car and head south, this suggests to me that the program is more of a show of force rather than a legitimate countermeasure.

And it’s sure to perform wonders for foreign relations. In response, Brazil has begun performing the same tactics on Americans. The U.S. Embassy had this to say in response: “While we acknowledge Brazil’s sovereign right to determine the requirements for entry into Brazil, we regret the way in which new procedures have suddenly been put in place that single out US citizens for exceptional treatment that has meant lengthy delays in processing, such as the case today with a more than nine hour delay for some US citizens arriving at Rio’s international airport.” But is the Embassy more concerned with the delays or the singling out of American passengers? If the latter, the irony is dripping wet.

[1/23/06 UPDATE: Two years later, security regulations are now accepted as easily as brushing one’s teeth twice a day. While I recognize this post as a particularly heavy-handed one, I am not sure what to make of my feelings now. I feel like an absolute hypocrite. For it seems impossible now to imagine a traveling existence in which one is not required to hand over one’s ID or to be subjected to rent-a-cops who have the false impression that they’re today’s answer to Dirty Harry. This is the kind of Orwellian show of force that angered me as a teenager. And I wonder just how much of a prisoner I am in my own country, and why I (and most Americans) have come to accept this, even when the reasons behind the War on Terror have been rendered bunk. I don’t really feel any more secure than I did before September 11, but I have come to accept this existence as part of the risk of everyday existence and don’t let it get in the way of anything I do, save of course the whole handing the ID over thing.]