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:

Grandma-

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.
Love,
Johnny
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.

Love–

Erin

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10 Comments

  1. Well, I cried.

    The Tholian Web is also my wife’s favorite Star Trek episode (mine is Balance of Terror — no, The Doomsday Machine — wait, City on the Edge of Forever … AGH).

  2. You are certainly a beautiful sister, Erin. I would like to think that your brother watches over you as well. Peace & blessings to you.

  3. Aw, honey.

    Actually, your post about getting the phone call leaves something out, which I feel must have been in there – because it sounds as if your family had already spent a long time worrying about your brother…

    The morning my cousin died I felt exactly the way you describe: just not right – couldn’t settle, felt strangely desperate for no discernable reason. Only I was home with two toddlers, so I was pretending I felt fine. Then my sister called.

    I love the picture of your brother! It’s great. And so are you.

  4. Thanks for all your comments. And yes Ms. Baroque, there is more to the story. The Hurt Real Bad essay that I linked above is part of a longer memoir. In this particular piece, I tried to deliver the stunning 24 hours surrounding John’s death and handle it as a singular centerpiece.

    This sort of thing is very difficult writing, but I’m gaining on it …

  5. I usually don’t follow links when someone is guest writing. But I’m glad I did on this one. A very moving piece…

  6. Hey Erin. I hope I am as brave and strong and true as you when I grow up. Of course at 51, maybe I’m not growing up and maybe that’s okay. This piece was the most upsetting and moving thing I’ve read. Thanks for carving out a piece of your soul and sharing it with us. Your honesty and openness is profound.

  7. Erin,

    I corrected the author name for Stripper Lessons (I work at Amazon). By the way there is a link to submit corrections on most every detail page on Amazon (“Would you like to update product info?”)

    The correction should be online sometime tomorrow. Those newspaper reviews were indeed nasty, incidentally.

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