A code of allusions and alleles
In the spring of 1990, while my brother, John O’Brien, was reveling in the impending publication of his first novel, “Leaving Las Vegas,” he was also writing another novel, “Better” (Akashic Books: 198 pp., $15.95 paper). John, profoundly alcoholic, took his life in April 1994, a few weeks after signing off on the film rights for “Leaving Las Vegas.” Although the movie based on his book eventually earned Nicolas Cage an Oscar for his portrayal of Ben, who goes to Las Vegas to drink himself to death, the story behind “Better,” which will be the last of John’s books to be published, is only as big as a single molecule.
To explain what I mean, I must return to the summer of 1986. During a visit with John and his then-wife Lisa at their Laurel Canyon home, I witnessed my brother’s shaking hands and clandestine slugs of 5 a.m. vodka. Nonetheless, John and I renewed our bond and when I returned to Cleveland, we were closer than we had ever been. I was 21. He was 26. He wrote me a few weeks later.
“I strongly urge you to move very far from Ohio,” he told me. “Anywhere in the Northeast is too close, and you won’t be changing your cultural experience.” Ohio was code for home; cultural experience meant Mom and Dad. Yet by the time he wrote “Better,” even California didn’t seem to be far enough. Or maybe it was that the miles John had put between himself and his family were just a superficial substitute for the true split he desired and couldn’t have -- the severing of the genetic cord.
“Better” is narrated by William, a musing drunk who spends his days having unfulfilling sex, watching “Love Boat” reruns and drinking vodka supplied by his benefactor, a kind of sugar daddy named Double Felix. William represents everything my father -- also named William -- detested and the reason he never liked “Better.” John’s use of the name was no coincidence, but some combination of symbolism and payback.
In June 1978, John refused to attend his high school commencement. His diploma arrived unceremoniously in the mail, inscribed with the name John Dylan O’Brien. John’s given middle name was Steven, in honor of our maternal grandfather, and his nod to the musician he idolized led to a ferocious and definitive fight between my father and brother. Names mattered to these men.
Despite my father’s feelings toward “Better” and his status as executor of John’s estate, he never actively withheld the book from agents and publishers, although neither did he actively promote it. After his sudden death in 2002, my mother and I were otherwise occupied and didn’t think much about it either. As a result, for the last 15 years, the characters of William and Double Felix -- as well as Timmy, Maggie, Laurie and a beautiful Latina hooker named Zipper -- have languished in the closed pages of the book. Then, in 2007, John’s story “The Tik” was published in the anthology “Las Vegas Noir,” and interest was renewed.
When I first read “Better,” shortly after John’s death, I noticed his use of the name William. I also observed that Double Felix was one letter removed from double helix, the geometric structure of the DNA molecule. References to family peppered the narrative. There were plenty of clues to a subtext; I just never pursued it until I was obliged to carefully review the prose for publication.
I had read the name Zipper Allele dozens of times before it finally registered. Zipper was the only character with a last name. John’s papery ghost whispered in my ear: Took you long enough.
A quick Google search unleashed a flurry of words and phrases: genomic DNA, transgene, molecular organization. Despite my confusion, I didn’t have to dig very deep to discover that Zipper wasn’t only a great name for a hooker but also a common description of the double helix structure when it “unzips” during replication. Allele referred to an alternative form of a gene that affects its host’s inherited characteristics, such as hair and eye color. Alleles are also associated with genetic disorders, including alcoholism.
Then there was John’s description of Double Felix’s house. I sketched out a floor plan: Rooms that were “squashed pointed ovals and semi-circular rhomboids” aligned north to south opposite “the big room” where “pushing, shoving crowding chaos” ensued. With no idea of what I was looking at, I did an image search for “chromosome.” Google suggested “mitosis” as a related search, and eventually I found something that looked like an approximate replica of my crude drawing. I blinked at the screen, discovery washing over me. Mitosis is the process by which parent cells divide. Double Felix’s house was a model of the first stage of procreation.
When I thought about my discoveries in the context of John’s ardent, two-decades-old urging to get away from home, revelation bloomed like crystals in a petri dish. “Better” wasn’t about cloistered misfits, it was a metaphoric chronicle of my brother’s battle with his genetic wiring.
Just as the character of William is subject to the nearly gravitational pull of Double Felix’s house -- he never leaves except to sleep on the balcony -- John was trying to escape his identity in the most profound sense. This internal fight plays out across the pages of the novel. As Double Felix becomes abusive, William stumbles forward. “The hall sucks me along its ineluctable path, a great big wet throat with a world of guilt waiting at the end, the rooms like so many teeth surrounding me.” So wrote a man whose genetic destiny was swallowing him. Sometimes as far away as you can get isn’t nearly far enough.
Around the time John was writing “Better,” our father invited him to go on a fishing trip with a group of his friends and their sons. He desperately wanted John to attend.
“Dad doesn’t understand,” John told me. He was precariously sober at the time. “I can’t go drinking for three days. I can’t drink like that anymore. I can’t drink like Dad.”
He didn’t have to add: Dad’s binge will end with a hangover. Mine will leave me in a shaking hell complete with devils bursting through the walls. This was no small point with John. He told me once there was nothing he wanted more than to be able to drink like our father, to be a heavy drinker like he was, a problem drinker, any kind of drinker who could keep drinking. John’s addiction was one ladder rung up the double helix from that.
Make no mistake, the “drinking himself to death” premise of “Leaving Las Vegas” was not autobiographical for John but fantastical: If only he could just keep drinking until the lights went out! It wasn’t that easy in reality. Nor was the devastating ejaculation at the end of “Leaving Las Vegas” a sexual expression, but a “final genetic statement” equally symbolic to the last gulp of liquor and the final exhalation that ensued.
An interviewer once asked me if there was a reason John committed suicide. I replied, “I imagine John committed suicide because he no longer wanted to live.” Next time, perhaps, I’ll simply recommend “Better.” It will take me years to unravel all the clues within these pages, but I am certain now that John believed his addiction was as innate as the cadence of his voice or the curve of his brow, and that the origin of what shaped him was also killing him.
So comes the word: And if thine eye offends thee, pluck it out. But how do you pull out the strands of your own DNA, the very stuff of your identity?
John answered that question with a single bullet.
Sign up for our Book Club newsletter
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.