I slightly resent that it’s taken me this long to discover John O'Hara – way back in the mists of A level English one of our modules was ‘The American Dream’ – which meant ‘The Great Gatsby (still love the book and the works of F Scott Fitzgerald generally, cannot abide Robert Redford or Mia Farrow) and ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ (just a brilliant book that no amount of studying can dim). Anyway it seems to me that sometime in the Gatsby period someone should have mentioned O’Hara – English teacher whose name I can’t remember – that means you.
‘BUtterfield 8’ is a hell of a book; opening with the heroine Gloria waking up in a strange bed after a drunken one night stand and closing a week or so later with the aftermath of her death. That’s not really a spoiler because it’s all on the back blurb, and it’s not so much about how it ends as what leads up to the end that matters in this book. Gloria; barely out of her teens is a habitué of numberless speakeasies, a heavy drinking, heavy doping, loose living kind of a girl. She’s also bright, warm hearted, generous and probably the most damaged individual I’ve yet found on the page. Her fate is sealed when she walks out of that one night stand wearing nothing but another woman’s mink coat, stolen both from necessity and compulsion.
(I should say at this point that even knowing Gloria doesn’t make it through to the end, what actually happens to her came as a total surprise to me, which just goes to show that knowing what happens doesn’t always rob you of the surprise to come.)
O’Hara has a gift for drawing a character in with a few deft strokes, and he does it over and again. I won’t lie - at times I found it a little bit confusing trying to work out who everyone was, and then I realised I didn’t need to know; they do all eventually connect, but in essence they’re people overlapping for a few moments and then separating again, only briefly part of the same story. The other heroine of this story is New York itself, it’s definitely the seedier side of the city that O’Hara celebrates; if it had a smell it would be a mix of cigarette smoke, sweat, gin, Chanel N°5, whisky, and things on the turn. There is a palpable sense of menace around the speakeasies’ – the mob is there and it seems to mean something - some really disturbing incidents are alluded to, and Gloria’s own life when it comes under scrutiny is shocking enough by modern standards, so no surprise the book was banned in Australia until 1963.
I read, and was slightly disappointed by Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Group’ earlier this year, mostly I think because I was expecting a book a bit more like this. Gloria’s sexuality is fairly thoroughly explored, and although I don’t know how it read in 1935 I don’t feel like she’s being judged for her behaviour. This is a remarkably promiscuous girl who at 22 has racked up a number of abortions and is left wondering what that coupled with the birth control steps she’s taken will do for her future chances of motherhood. She’s done things she clearly wishes she hadn’t, but at the same time she also takes pleasure in her own body and her sexuality. At times she’s a victim – not least of some nasty childhood experiences which play no small part in her adult lifestyle, but O’Hara also gives her dignity and a measure of respect – whatever she does she’s never treated as a whore.
I think it takes a man to write about a woman like this, and this is perhaps another of the reasons why I found ‘The Group’ disappointing – McCarthy is honest, but often cruel in her observations, O’Hara writes with love so Gloria for all her faults is looked at kindly. The end result is a book I can’t recommend highly enough!