Monday, September 05, 2011

Telephone conversation

The following conversation regarding my brother John O'Brien's posthumous novel, Better (Akashic, 2009), took place during the publication process.

Me: Hi Mom.

Mom: Hi hon.

Me: Mom, I'm about to send the final version of Better off to Akashic and I wanted to check in with you first. Is there anything in the book you want to talk about?

Mom: That one scene. I hate that one scene.

Me: Which one?

Mom: The one where he urinates on the floor. Do you know the one I'm talking about?

Me: I do.

Mom: I hate that scene.

Me: I know, Mom.

Mom: It's disgusting. Johnny would never do anything like that.

Me: Of course he wouldn't.

Mom: Maybe you should take it out.



Me: I'd really hate to do that.


Me: I don't think the scene has anything to do with John. It's about the character. The character is trying to verify he's alive. He needs to hear a sound that's ... primal.

You know how careful John was about his writing. Every word had a purpose. I really think it should stay, Mom. I really do. It's about being alive. It's important.




Me: John would be furious to see it deleted.

Mom: I guess you're right, but I still don't like it.

Me: I understand that. Try to separate it from Johnny. If he were here, he'd tell you it's about the character. You know I hate to put words in his mouth, but I think I've got this one right.


Me: I'm doing the best I can.

Mom: I know you are.

Me: Should I send it along to Akashic then? Is there anything else we should talk about?

Mom: No. If you're happy with it, that's fine.

Me: I'm not sure "happy" is the right word.

Mom: I know. You know what I mean.

Me: I do. Okay then, I'll get this going.

Mom: Okay. Love you.

Me: Love you.

Excerpt from Better:
Suddenly I am aware that the house is positively silent. There is absolutely no aural evidence that any animate thing occupies this house. For all I hear right now, I could be alone. Even the sounds of my own body eludes me. The perennial hum of the world at large: not there. The cumulative buzz of myriad ticks and tocks that drifts into our ears twenty-four hours a day: missing. The orchestration of every noise ever made anywhere, perpetually and reliably amalgamated then distilled down to a back-of-your-head IV of mild distraction in a sucrose base: history.

I do stand. I am in need of a noise. I hit the table with my glass: bok. Not enough--I need a longer noise. I slap myself. Again. Listen: still nothing. I can't possibly be alone here; I know better. Afraid to listen to my watch, much less look at it, my eye instead falls on a remote for the televisions. I can't touch it; I am afraid that if I reach for it, I might lose my balance, fall and strike my head, die in this pervading silence. My eyes blur. My bladder burns. It seems a very long time since I last urinated--too long for a living man. Still standing by the bar, I unzip my fly: zzzip. I pull out my penis; it seems pitifully small, and I can hold it between my thumb and my forefinger. It takes time, then finally there is liquid. At first a mere dribble trickling along my finger and dripping off the knuckle, it grows in force and becomes a steady stream under pressure which separates from my finger and finds its own path. It hits the floor, fairly quietly at first but soon announcing itself with a rumble as it stakes out its puddle and continues falling upon itself, no longer absorbed by the shocked carpet. It's now loud: patapatapatapata. It feels good to hear it. It smells bad, for I have held it too long; nonetheless, it feels good to smell it.

And much to my relief, when the splashing ends, it is replaced by the regular sounds of the house, the city, the rest. I hear water running--plumbed water--in one of the bathrooms. An airplane passes overhead. Probably an antique from Santa Monica airport, for it has that precarious cough that haunts old black and white movie soundtracks. Once the bane of inevitably smaller-than-life airmen, it has no doubt become something to be achieved, duplicated, recaptured in its authenticity, like the dying, spitting, last-time-out-before-the-snow-flies sound of a well-tuned Harley. I hear other things. I hear a trillion things, all of them rich and cogent messengers; they sing to me of my continuing sanity.

* * *

John O'Brien died in April 1994 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the Beverly Hills apartment building featured in these photographs.

Further reading.

* * *


Tony Rugare said...

Leaving it in was the right choice. Beautiful and vivid writing!

Big Mark 243 said...

It was pretty impressive stuff... your brother was an amazing talent and I hope to read his work...

Leslie Morgan said...

I get sensitive when I read Johnny or hear you talk about him ~ you know why. Sometimes I have to take a step back. That said, many indelicate recitals still give off beauty simply because they graphically express just precisely what the writer was trying to convey. I'm glad you left it in. You're right, Erin. He would have wanted it in.

Bill said...

Have to read "Better". Amazon will have it to me this week.

twinkly sparkles said...

You are brave and your mother is brave. It is heartbreaking to read this and very beautiful--both your conversation and the excerpt.

Thanks for your grace. I am sure your mother knows it. Katherine

Harry Finch said...

How pleasant it would be if the struggle for existence manifested itself in the sound of blue seas breaking on sandy beaches, or the laments of mourning doves in butternut trees. But usually it's in the splishsplash dripdrip of piss landing on a living room floor.

We all know this, but few are blessed (and cursed) by the courage and honesty to say it aloud.

Bill said...

Speak for yourself Harry. Oh, that's right. You are.

Erin O'Brien said...

Thank you all for reading and commenting.

Obviously, whenever I travel to Los Angeles, John weighs heavily on my mind. This last trip, I wanted to take my daughter to John's places, including the apartment shown in today's post--where John died. Maybe that's maudlin or strange to some, but there it is.

John's gone 17 years now, but my relationship with him continues, weaving in and out of my life like an unregulated sine wave. Sometimes I beckon it and sometimes it beckons me. Whatever the case, when it looms larger than me I try and reign it in by articulating it. Hence the post.

This is what it's like, I whisper, hoping that my humble tile fits into the grander human mosaic.

I just don't know what else to do.

Bill said...

E: Your tile is unique and colorful and fits perfectly in that mosaic, somewhere near the middle or, maybe out on one of the edges.

Cleveland Bob said...

That was positively beautiful, Erin.

Both John's prose and your recalculation of it was simply wonderful, funny, sad and timeless. John's excerpt put me in mind of the wonderful Tom Waits song, The House Where Nobody Lives.


Mike Lawless said...

I've purposefully hurt myself to prove I'm alive. Peeing seems a better way.

Jack Cluth said...

I can only imagine what you must feel when you think of John. You honor him with your love for and remembrances of him. Thank you for sharing that with us.

Bill said...

Just unwrapped and started reading Better. Here's a line that caught my eye and seems to be an early sign of the dispair that William is starting to experience: "..I am finding fewer and fewer reasons to draw arbitrary lines around my morals, to declare the perimeter of my behavior."