INTRODUCTION BY ERIN O'BRIEN:
Years ago, I was going about some mindless household chore while my 3-year-old daughter watched The Rugrats. But when Tommy and Angelica started prattling on about about a cache of fascinating toys, it got my attention and familiarity rang. I sat down next to Jessie and blinked at the screen. The episode, "Toys in the Attic," had been written by my brother John O'Brien nearly a decade before. He had sent me a copy of his draft script because it was based on toys that were in the attic of the Lake Avenue home where we grew up.
When the show was over, I scurried to my file cabinet and unearthed John's original pages. He had told me he was unhappy with the final edits and therefore asked that the formal writing credit go to a pen name "Carroll Mine," which is the main character in another of John's novels, Stripper Lessons.
"So I'll be able to prove I wrote the episode," said John as he explained the pen name, "on the outside chance it wins some award or something." But shortly thereafter, about two weeks after selling the film rights for his novel Leaving Las Vegas, John took his own life. He was 33.
My brother's irritation over the Rugrats script changes seemed beside the point now that he had captivated a tiny niece whom he would never know via one of his favorite muses: pop culture. And something delicate was wrought: This quirky bittersweet moment wove its singular strand into the tether between life and death.
In the following excerpt from Better, the last of John's novels to be published, narrator William takes in some gin and 7 a.m. television in one of my favorite sections of the book. I have no idea if I ever saw The Love Boat: episode 171: "Rhino of the Year," or how closely William's musings follow its plot, but this section does bring my brother back to me in a circuitous way. Perhaps one day I'll be dusting or sweeping, oblivious to the television droning on in the background. Perhaps I'll hear Captain Stubing turn his attention to the Royal Rhino and familiarity will wash over me yet again.
Now bristling with what should be exhilaration at facing another new day but is in fact psychosomatic alcohol withdrawal, I assess the hallway, find it in good order, and hasten to the big room for a gin and some morning television. It is rapidly approaching seven a.m., and I want to be sure to catch what I can of all three introductory indexes to each of the morning-network-magazine-news shows; barring any unusual complications, such as potentially interesting subject matter, I can then switch over to one of Los Angeles' myriad independents, who are never too proud to rerun a seventies sitcom or a titillating aerobics production at this or any other hour. Selecting a stool at the bar, I pour a generous glass of gin, condescendingly flash it at a suppliant bottle of tonic, and spin on my barstool. From here I can see the bank of TVs that sit on steel shelves that span the otherwise uselessly acute corner opposite the bar. I pick up one of the normally elusive but supposedly plentiful remotes that hide like mice about the room and turn on what turns out to be the upper right screen (they sit two over three). Unlike Double Felix I am uncomfortable viewing more than one program at a given moment, though I am addicted to cycling back and forth through the channels, as long as I can keep track of what's on each one. Even viewing the same program on several screens — an option which seems to thrill the rest of the house — is for me disquieting, for I find I am unable to keep my eyes on any one screen; rather, they move about frantically, as if needing perpetual confirmation that the image displayed on any one set is indeed identical to the others. I suppose I eschew the cable channels for similar reasons: they demand that too many options be addressed.
This bar — procured, incidentally, from an actual barroom in Double Felix's past, back when he might have been found in such a place and would have cared enough to take along a piece of it, way back before I knew him, before the whole reference came to be dismissed with a disparaging Some place I was once in ... closed down ... took it off their hands — is now serving as a line upon which I am a point. This is a geometrical approximation that amuses me, one that I tend to hide behind. Perhaps, though, the significance is lost when I'm sitting alone in the room, as I am now; and really, it is the wrong room for such a bar, for even during a party the drinkers that populate this bar are indulging speciously in the vice, never understanding the realities and terror of the habit, but always very impressed with their random stays in treatment programs and close calls that amount, at best, to just another Christmas tree light turned on behind their eyes. Unqualified attendees notwithstanding, I feel safer watching television from the bar. A child on the return trip, I can stay here in my specially designed womb and look at the evil world as it transpires before me, innocuous behind the convex glass of the picture tube.
As usual, the network morning shows fail to seduce me, and I find myself watching The Love Boat. A given episode of this show normally features three stories, three mini-casts from a boatload of passengers who are all traveling together but for our purposes are visited alternately during the cruise. The segment that has my closest attention involves Captain Stubing, who is slated to be honored as this year's outstanding private citizen by the Rhinos, a group of adult male pranksters who are annoying everyone on board with their practical jokes but are tolerated because they reputedly do a lot of good charity and community work. Now Captain Stubing is not a member of the Rhinos, but as captain, and out of deference to the Rhinos' good reputation, he reluctantly agrees to attend the impending awards ceremony and so, at the request of his benefactors, commences the impartial business of choosing which crew member will introduce him from the podium. Ultimately Isaac, the black bartender, is chosen through a random pin-the-tail-on-the-crew-member type improvisation in the crew's lounge, and if we didn't know any better, that would be that. But it seems that the head Rhino, upon hearing of Captain Stubing's selection, pulls him aside and, armed with a modicum of tact, makes it known that Isaac, while a great guy, is not exactly Rhino material. This is especially distressing to us because — even Captain Stubing doesn't know this — we know that innocent, happy-to-go-along, black Isaac didn't want to do it in the first place and was only following orders. Be that as it may, the quandary is in place, provided we accept that Captain Stubing's disposition regarding the award is analogous to his feelings about the incongruous charity-racism of the Rhinos; analogous, in fact, to whether he accepts racism along with charity, or rejects charity as well as racism. It would seem that these are his only two options.
But I blow it. Momentarily secure in the knowledge that all will be well, I turn to a local talk show and become transfixed by the cleavage of the guest, Cindi Trim, a local woman whose husband has financed what she claims is her lifelong dream, a bistro near Venice Beach called Graffiti. I gather that, in lieu of windows and in keeping with the spirit of the neighborhood as Cindi perceives it, she has installed large white panels on all exposed sides of the structure. She has even gone so far as to have cans of spray paint tethered to these panels with long elastic cords fastened at intervals of ten feet along the foundation. Magnanimously Cindi vows that she will do whatever it takes to become a part of Venice; and indeed, I must confess that she looks every inch the good sport. But having absorbed her story, and with the faint howl of a panic calling from my gut, I realize that time has been sacrificed foolishly on this drivel, and that I actually did want to follow the progression of Captain Stubing's dilemma. Quickly I grab the remote and switch back to The Love Boat, only to arrive too late — well, almost too late. The head Rhino, standing on the bridge and wearing that lesson-learned look, is sheepishly talking to Captain Stubing: He's sorry ... he doesn't know where the Rhinos got off the track, but things are gonna change NOW ... he wants to thank Captain Stubing and the whole crew, especially Isaac, for setting them straight. Clearly I have missed something important.
I marvel at Captain Stubing's abilities; the man is truly an epic hero. I want to ride The Love Boat to all its romantic ports of call, I want to do something nefarious — perhaps fuck a fifteen-year-old girl on its starboard deck — confident that I will be, nonetheless, digested by its facile morality. I want to know what I would have known if I had only stayed tuned. But I didn't. I missed the key part of this passage, and in a fit of frustration I throw the remote across the room, causing it to strike and permanently mar one of the murals. I don't care; how could I have so cockily changed the channel? How could I have missed this piece of magic? The television, in its desire to offer me everything, has fucked up and given me nothing. I will never know why the Rhinos are better men now, why Captain Stubing is the same man, and how this theoretically impossible creation of energy occurred. Or did something generate the spark? Was the energy given up? When was the click? Which nanosecond held the world in exactly the right position to make this come about? I can only deduce that Captain Stubing has in fact been imperceptibly altered, that, like all good saints, he gave up something of himself — with no regard for himself — simply because it had to be done. This may be a small thing, but because I lingered on chit-chatty cuisine served over a bed of cleavage, I have lost it — or failed to gain it. From where I sit I feel very undernourished, as if I just dotted the i on my American Express receipt and passed it back to a preoccupied Cindi Trim, her eight-fifty dinner salad a fleeting memory to my tongue, as well as to the saucer on which it came.
Reprinted with permission from Akashic Books (akashicbooks.com)