Sunday, September 22, 2013

BUtterfield 8 by John O'Hara

Privileged people make their way around early Depression Manhattan

Gloria Wandrous, a good time gal, wakes up one morning in Weston Liggett’s bed.  The night before he foolishly took her to the apartment he shares with his wife and children. Her dress now ripped down the front, Gloria steals the wife’s fur coat so she can take a cab home. The rest of the novel is nominally Weston’s search to get the coat back, and let Gloria know he can’t live without her, as well as Gloria’s halfhearted attempts to avoid him. The reader encounters many other characters, from Gloria’s writer pal Eddie to the Irish Catholic Farleys. Also a creepy Dr. Reddington seems to be following Gloria around. Virtually everyone is rich and sophisticated. College educated, at least. It’s 1930 and the stock market has crashed. People are frightened but the worst is yet to come yet. By the end of the book, Weston has met up with Gloria, though their story ends abruptly and somewhat puzzlingly.

BUtterfield 8 must have been the Bright Lights, Big City of its day. The New York sophisticate setting and rather amoral characters also reminded me of The Great Gatsby, however a Gatsby lacking overweening literary ambition and a perfect plot.  This book was all about the great dialogue, with comparatively few descriptions or interior monologues. Gloria’s story is primary, but the book really is about New Yorkers accepting the new reality of the depression.

And the drinking – wow. All these people do is go to speakeasies. No wonder there was no respect for the law. The Depression has started, has begun to affect lives, but it doesn’t seem to be taken seriously yet. But there are hints of worse things to come. O’Hara was a bit of a soothsayer since the book was written in 1935, well before World War II. The “sophisticated” attitude felt dated, although the writing was very skillful. The “shocking” bits got a little tiresome too, the casual sex, the near constant drinking, the abortion. However, this novel would definitely be of interest for the history of women in America.

BUtterfield 8 lacked a legitimate plot and I missed that. And the ending is just plain stupid. So what exactly did you want to say about Gloria Wandrous, Mr. O’Hara? The interesting thing is that there is an implication that her promiscuity has been tipped off by an incident of sexually abuse in her childhood. Sounds like child abuse has been happening for a while. That part actually felt pretty modern. In the end, however, I never really cared for Gloria Wandrous or for what happened to her.

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