This was originally posted at www.smilepolitely.com a culture blog based in my hometown. It's been a year, so I feel justified in posting it to my site.
Love stories aren't my area of expertise. I write about gods, demons, and fascist governments. Nicholas Sparks, I ain't. However, even surly speculative fiction writers can be touched by a well-written, thoughtful examination of human connectedness. That's why Leaving Las Vegas is my favorite love story. I am referring to John O'Brien's novel, however, the film adaptation from 1995 is a pitch-perfect retelling, and has great merit in its own right.
Within a few pages of Leaving Las Vegas I was transported to the seedy underbelly of Vegas. It was 2am and I was standing on the strip, watching the flashing lights reflected in puddles of beer and the glazed eyes of junkies. Like the city itself, the book is loud, abrasive, shameless and ultimately heart-breaking. But unlike the city, Leaving Las Vegas cuts through the neon and soiled bedsheets and asks "now what?"
The book examines two self-destructive lost souls: Ben, a successful-guy-turned-drunk in the final stages of alcoholism, and Sera, a weary prostitute on the downside of her prime. They arrive in the city at different times, with different agendas, but a chance encounter brings them together.
Leaving Las Vegas is the most moving, powerful love story I have ever read for a few reasons. For one, there isn't a shred of falseness, cliche, or candy-coating in the book. They are two people who have destroyed their lives beyond repair, that briefly find existential meaning in a relationship with each other. It doesn't fix them. It doesn't make them industrious, tax-paying citizens. They share a period of peace and togetherness in their otherwise lonely, rudderless lives.
The love between Ben and Sera takes root in the most toxic soil. Two broken people with nothing to offer momentarily grasp something pure and divine. Their love is a flower growing in the trash of a Las Vegas gutter. Its beautiful because it wasn't potted or cared for. It flowered in spite of the poison all around it.
If you read the book, be prepared to be offended, disgusted, and depressed. But also be prepared to be moved by the most unlikely of characters and knocked flat by the transcendence of love.