john-obrienjpg-db16bae109375d1a_mediumBack in the late 1980s I was managing editor of Watermark Press, a small literary publishing company located upstairs from Watermark Books, an independent bookstore in Wichita.  We had great dreams of creating the kind of publishing experience City Lights created in San Francisco, only in the middle of the country.  The company had a serious and committed investor named Bruce Jacobs, a great accounting and shipping director named Candace Duggan, and me—the guy who handled day-to-day affairs, hired sales staff, wrote catalogue copy, approved book design, chose paper, font and layout, and did publicity.  A one-man band.  We did six books a season, spring and fall, and it was hard work.  Watermark made a little money, lost money, eventually closed after ten years or so because of the book climate, shipping costs, publisher consolidations and many, many other causes.

But there were brilliant, ineluctable moments along the way and the press produced a number of outstanding books, the value, charm and worth of which remain.  One of those came in over the transom one day from a New York agent named Bill Powers.  He sent me a manuscript called “Leaving Las Vegas” by a young Ohio writer named John O’Brien.

I was getting a lot of manuscripts then and trying to write my own crime fiction, review books, and practice a little law to put food on the table.  It was hectic and tiring, but that night I took the manuscript home and, after dinner, sat down to read the first chapter.  My instinct was to give a book only twenty-five or so pages before putting it in the reject pile, less if it was really terrible.  But “Leaving Las Vegas” was far from terrible.  I read on and on, wondering how this gem managed to slip by major New York publishers, given that it was a literary bombshell written in a unique, gripping, immediate style that held the reader in a tight, tense, otherworldly grip.  Who was John O’Brien, where did he come from and how had he managed to write such a classic so young?

The press quickly made its standard offer, which was accepted.  What Watermark couldn’t tender an author in up-front advances we tried to make up for in beautiful design, wide distribution, active publicity and continuing support.  John and his agent didn’t seem to care that the advance was only $500 and told us they were happy to be published.  We sailed through the contract, book design, editing and catalogue decisions.  John wrote me clear and compassionate letters, a series of them beginning in the summer of 1990 through to the winter of 1992.

The book was published to wide acclaim.  John called me and told me producers in Los Angeles wanted to make a movie and that he was driving west with his wife Lisa and he’d be in Wichita.  Could we meet?  John did in fact come to Wichita and we spent a wonderful half-day in my office.  He and Lisa were young, enthusiastic, happy, in-love, lyrical, ecstatic, on-the-moon.  I liked John enormously and when he drove out of town to California, I knew he was operating inside a big, drama-filled yellow bubble of happiness.  He loved Los Angeles, he loved the idea of being a writer and he was with the woman of his dreams.

Of course, “Leaving Las Vegas” is the shattering tale about a man committing slow suicide by drinking himself to death.  He loses his job, sells his possessions, buys as much alcohol as he has money to buy, and goes to Vegas where he meets Sara, a prostitute.  John, in our meeting, admitted to me that he’d started drinking vodka when he was in his early teens and was an alcoholic.  The inner life he described in his book was his own inner life with its torments, illusions, guilt and turmoil.  I knew then why “Leaving Las Vegas” would take its place beside “Under the Volcano” as a classic book about alcohol and death.  In Wichita he told me he was off the stuff for good.  He was going to be a writer and a husband.

I got a few letters from John in California.  He wrote on thick bond with a classy art-deco letterhead that gave a P.O. Box in Beverly Hills.  I heard through the grapevine that he’d started hanging out on the Sunset Strip with rock stars.  The movie directed by Mike Figgis came out and was a big hit leading to a lucrative paperback deal with Grove Press.

When the movie rights were purchased,  John wrote me a hand-written letter on his stationary, the first time he’d used pen and ink.  He must have been feeling immortal.

“Looks like our troubles are over!!” he wrote.  That letter was dated February 2, 1992.

In California, John hooked up with vodka again, drinking I heard a gallon a day.  Maybe it was less, what does it matter?  Lisa left as she was bound to do.  John gravitated to skid row hotels, never ate, didn’t write, lost contact.  I heard from his agent that he’d been found in a ratty hotel room in downtown L.A. surrounded by vodka bottles like his character from “Leaving Las Vegas”, Ben.  Strange story, isn’t it, a Twilight Zone where the author pens his own demise.  I have a photo of John in my files, a glossy black and white of a very young writer in a sleeveless sweater, big aviator sunglasses, long glossy black hair and a confident, determined look on his face.  That’s John, for sure.

Now, sometimes late at night I’ll down one for John.  Not out of pity, not even out of sorrow, but just as an acknowledgment that sometimes alcohol has a power that’s too great for a man to bear.

Here’s to you, John.