Saturday, August 01, 2009

Fiction: Better by John O’Brien

Better is what it sounds like inside the head of a man drinking himself to death. Overconsumption is a common theme in the work of John O’Brien (who also gave us Leaving Las Vegas) and, sadly, in his foreshortened life as well. In Better (Akashic Books), O’Brien’s final novel, he tells part of his tale within the surreal confines of a mansion owned by a man known only as “Double Felix.” William is a slacker who drifted into Felix’s orbit, and wound up staying. His only duties are to drink Morning Vodka and share an evening libation with Felix. The rest of his day consists of imbibing gin, watching Love Boat reruns and bedding the various female guests of the mansion, including partygoer Maggie and one-time call-girl Zipper. When he’s not doing those things, he sleeps a booze-induced sleep on the back deck.

But then another girl named Lisa arrives and upsets Felix’s perfect little world of hedonism. Felix is obsessed with her, and her presence alarms the other women (and one other man). She even drives Zipper to try and get William to quit drinking.

Better is a bizarre story written in a jarring style. O’Brien seems to be invoking F. Scott Fitzgerald, another writer who battled demon rum and lost. However, this novel, with its aimless pursuit of pleasure, also suggests influences from another literary heavyweight, Jack Kerouac, in its abandonment of the real world in exchange for meaningless sex and endless booze. The cracks are showing at the beginning, however, when Felix declares that things are not entirely well with his source of income. Lisa seems to be at the center of it all, her connection to Felix eroding his control over the house. She even causes a rift between Felix and William. By the end of the story, William is pondering running off with Zipper, the whore who ironically loves him, and drinking himself to death.

I don’t think Better is an appropriate title for O’Brien’s last novel. The destruction of Double Felix’s private pleasure dome over the course of a day invokes yet one more literary masterpiece.

Paradise Lost.

READ MORE:John O’Brien’s Better,” by Devin Tanchum
(Book Soup Blog).

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