REVIEW OF BETTER BY JOHN O’BRIEN

BetterBetter by John O’Brien

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

John O’Brien always gives us a privileged view into the depths of his characters, their secrets, their hidden agendas, their romantic thoughts, which are for our eyes only. And he slows down scenes, making it all about the moment. “Better” is a strange book in that it takes place solely inside the confines of a mansion overlooking the California coast. This is where we meet William, a permanent house guest of the Lord of the Manor, Double Felix. Their interactions are a play on language, a literary contest every morning over a glass of vodka. “Better” demonstrates how language is character and character is language.

Read this book after you have read O’Brien’s more commercial “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Stripper Lessons.”

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REVIEW OF STRIPPER LESSONS

Stripper LessonsStripper Lessons by John O’Brien

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Have you ever felt alone?

Stripper Lessons provides a window into the life of a lonely man. Carroll is the guy who watches the world turn from the shadows, the guy you walk past at the mall, never knowing he was ever there. But that guy was there, watching you walk past.

The story is personal and the plot only occurs over a few days. I wondered why O’Brien chose this part of Carroll’s seemingly repetitious life. But then Stevie dances her way into his world. O’Brien describes the breathtaking blond with some of the most vivid prose I’ve ever read. I found myself re-reading some of these passages, mesmerized as if I were beholding an artist’s painting or listening to a classical masterpiece. O’Brien gives us very little backstory on these characters, but I can appreciate the “here and now” with Carroll and Stevie’s interactions. I wanted this guy to find what he was lacking. He tried everything, an infomercial video for “shy men,” flashy clothes with “curlicues,” and even alcohol (Carroll’s naivety with booze is the opposite of Ben’s overindulgence in Leaving Las Vegas). But even though Carroll alienates coworkers, barmaids, and strippers over the course of the book, he gains a deeper understanding of himself and an acceptance of who he is, and who he is not.

You always glean new words from O’Brien’s works, and this fact, in my opinion, adds another layer to his stories. As I read Strippers Lessons, I became emotionally involved with Carroll and feared for him as the end neared. In the few days we spend with him in the story, it seemed his subconscious prompted him to grow, and made him become not the guy watching from the shadows, bottling his emotions up, but the guy shouting, tossing and shattering said bottle onto the ground. And I particularly liked how Carroll ran up to Stevie in the parking lot outside of Indiscretions. He was no longer afraid to be a lonely man.

Read Leaving Las Vegas for a view into a character losing his way; read Stripper Lessons for a view into a character finding his way. -Jonathan Sturak 12/08/2012

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