By John O’Hara
Appointment in Samarra was a great book. When Olman was getting rid of old boxes from his parent’s basement, I spotted an old paperback of BUtterfield 8 (not the cover shown here), which I salvaged from the giveaway heap.
The only thing I knew about B8 before reading it was that O’Hara was inspired by the 1931 news story of Starr Faithfull, an attractive young woman whose body was found washed up on a Long Island beach. She apparently drowned, but nobody could conclude whether it was accident, murder or suicide. Reporters uncovered a life of loose morals and constant imbibing, as well as a lurid childhood past which involved being molested by a former Boston mayor. All of which O’Hara makes reference to in his dramatization of Faithfull’s short life, embodied in his character, Gloria Wandrous.
I both admired B8 and was quite frustrated by it at the same time. It’s definitely messier than Samarra, but still has trademark O’Hara moments of incisive savagery. He depicts with cynicism and wit the blurred dichotomy between sheltered middle-class suburbia (where Gloria is from) and the down-and-out speakeasy scene of 1931 Manhattan (which Gloria is drawn to). Yet the character of the heroine lacks depth, making it hard to relate to her. The novel begins with her waking up in the depths of despair, but the novel never really explores how this despair originates. Gloria is more like O’Hara’s archetype of the lost woman.
Yet he does give us many an awesome passage about Gloria living the fast life, such as:
…the thing that about that time became and continued for two or three years to be the most important was drinking. The Dizzy Club, the Hotsy-Totsy, Tommy Guinan’s Chez Florence, the Type & Print Club, the Basque’s, Michel’s, Tony’s East Fifty-third Street, Tony’s West Forty-ninth Street … —these were places where she was known by name and sight, where she awed the bartenders by the amount she drank. They knew that before closing she would be stewed, but not without a good fight… She drank rye and water all day long. When she remembered that she had not eaten for twenty-four hours she would go to a place where the eggs were to be trusted, order a raw egg, break it in an Old Fashioned cocktail tumbler, shoot Angostura bitters into it, and gulped the result. That night she would have dinner: fried filet of sole with tartar sauce. Next day, maybe no food, maybe bouillon with a raw egg. Certain cigarettes gave her a headache. She would smoke Chesterfields or Herbert Tareytons, no others.
Here is a character who’s ahead of her time, but because she is a woman I got the feeling she was going to be punished somehow, like getting murdered or committing suicide. Gloria was involved with Liggett, a married man old enough to be her father who both loved and hated her, and Eddie, a friend whose love for her went unrequited. I thought one of these men would end up killing her. But in the end, Gloria’s sordid life somehow gets redeemed when she finds “her calling” to settle down, of all things! She and Liggett end up together on a steamboat ferry: he agrees to leave his wife and family, and she agrees to marry him. Gloria confesses:
“… You think because I’ve been around like a man and I’m ready to settle down. That’s not the reason why I’ll be a good wife… Do you want to know the real reason? Because it’s born in me. My mother. I was thinking today what a wonderful wife she was to my father, and still is after all these years. In a way of course you’re right. Living the kind of life I’ve led then finding out that there’s only one life for a woman.”
So yeah. I found the ending very disappointing. Even though O'Hara excels at making hard-boiled critiques about class and American society, he lamely cops out to the sexual mores of his time. Then there's Gloria’s anti-climactic death where she merely falls off the ferry in a freak accident and gets sucked under a paddlewheel.
Perhaps O'Hara intended a meaningless and trivial death for someone who was supposed to be tragic, beautiful and damned. But dramatically, it just didn't do it for me. I'd rather have Gloria killed for living the life she wanted to live (as in living like a man), or killing herself because she couldn't live the life she wanted to live, than to realize she wanted to live a conventional life of a woman in the 1930's after all, and then suddenly die in a stupid accident.
BUtterfield 8 is uneven in its execution, but there are still many great passages that give you a sense of how ironically hedonistic and tumultuous those times must have been, and how a wild young woman caught up in that scene might have lived. But it definitely had some pretty serious flaws too.