Leaving Las Vegas, the first novel by John O'Brien, is a disturbing and emotionally wrenching story of a woman who embraces life and a man who rejects it, a powerful tale of hard luck and hard drinking and a relationship of tenderness and destruction.
An avowed alcoholic, Ben drinks away his family, friends, and, finally, his job. With deliberate resolve, he burns the remnants of his life and heads for Las Vegas to end it all in the last great binge of his hopeless life. On the Strip, he picks up Sera, a prostitute, in what might have become another excess in his self-destructive jag. Instead, their chance meeting becomes a respite on the road to oblivion as they form a bond that is as mysterious as it is immutable. Leaving Las Vegas tells a powerful story of unconditional love between two disenfranchised souls who connect for a fleeting moment.
In lesser hands, Leaving Las Vegas might sound flippant, sarcastic, or cruel. Luckily, L.J. Ganser voices this stark novel with just the right amount of existential dread, providing a clue to the emotional wrecks this story serves to highlight. In contrast to the bright neon lights of Las Vegas, John O’Brien paints a bleak background for the two main characters. Sera, a career prostitute, lives out a zombie-like existence, reacting neither to pain nor pleasure with any noticeable emotion. Ben is a drunk without remorse, drinking not just out of compulsion but also a benign resignation to an alcoholic lifestyle. For most of the novel Sera and Ben experience the decidedly not-glitzy side of Las Vegas separate, alone, and, until they meet, forebodingly aimless. Their union late in the book brings these damaged, lonely souls the comfort and solace they hadn’t realized they so desperately needed.
Ganser handles these characters with care: no one is judged for their emotional shortcomings, dubious moral decisions, or consequential failures. He instead reads the action with a professorial tone, and imparts equal parts whimsy and self-acknowledgement to Ben’s voice in particular. For all of Sera’s supposed strengths when dealing with adversity, Ganser’s voice reveals the frailties of self-doubt that O’Brien has subtly layered in. When Sera and Ben begin their doomed dalliance, Ganser gets to business upping the tension in revelatory fashion. It is here, late in the novel, when the story (and Ganser’s narration in particular) really shines. When a clearly drunk but also clear-thinking Ben says to Sera, “I hope that you understand that I understand,” Ganser gives the line all the weight it deserves, recognizing this as the perfect summation for the foundation of their entire relationship. Ganser’s performance of Leaving Las Vegas is an expertly narrated, subtly nuanced take on a devastatingly heavy-hearted story.
Throughout the novel, Leaving Las Vegas is much like its main characters: guarded, defeated, depressing. But like Sera and Ben at the end of the story, this book wears its heart on its sleeve, pushing even the most cynical of us to feel overwhelming sympathy. As first-time novels go, this one hits the jackpot. Josh Ravitz
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Leaving Last Vegas
- Teresa Curry