My old paperback copy advertises the precursor to telephone area codes on its title page ("Starting on December 16, a distinguishing numeral will be added to, and become part of, each central office name in New York City. For example: HAnover will become HAnover 2.)" The typeset on the yellow pages was sometimes turned askew, or absent. You might think the material of the book would put me more in a mind to embrace John O'Hara's classic novel-of-its-time ("Great Novel of the Fantastic Thirties!" exclaims the text on my copy. "Shrew, savage, merciless!" goes the New York Times blurb). And yet -- alas.
But let me start with this.
The most interesting dimension of O'Hara's novel is how it was both set and written in the 1930s, but the Depression hangs like a husk around the plot, rather than being its centerpiece. The people we meet on its pages are impacted by their thin dry era in slight and provoking and haunting ways, but they nonetheless live rather privileged lives. They carry their manners and habits forth even as they are foregrounded against a changed New York City landscape. Normal rituals of drink and dates and social indignities and gossip are where their attention lies. Their interest in politics and inequality doesn't go much further than their concern about being tipped to the logistics of getting into a particularly good speakeasy.
My surprise at this -- to read a novel set in 1931 where the Depression is not the primary concern -- is telling. It revealed how rare a cultural artifact that is, as if the only stories worth telling about the time are really one story. As if only one thing (albeit a large, complicated, and compelling thing) happened during those ten or so years of, as Studs Terkel would put it, hard times. O'Hara's characters are hardly models of broad-minded social concern; it is fitting that the Depression scarcely carries weight on the pages of their novel. It is simply not something they think much about. For whatever impact the Crash had on them, most of them are wealthy people all the same -- culturally and relatively, if nothing else. The fact that there were wealthy people in America in the 1930s is somehow startling to me, again revealing how very focused the cultural artifacts from and about that time are, at least those that still have audiences today. O'Hara is masterful at conveying the tense, edgy atmosphere of New York City at the time, when so many fearfully hoped that the Crash's aftermath was nearing its end and recovery would soon blossom. A hungry waiting time. It is present, whether or not the characters of BUtterfield 8, moving through those panting streets, pay it mind.
That said. I didn't like the book. The character of Gloria Wandrous, on whom the novel turns, is intended to be mysterious, but is only thin and unmeaningfully obscure. She makes haphazard decisions that -- despite her tragic backstory, which seems posited as a hazy sort of explanation -- are heavily plotted and often hit a tin ear: they read like O'Hara hasn't spoken much with the sort of woman he means to portray through Gloria. As if O'Hara believes that her magnetic appeal to men and sheen of tragedy are enough for readers to find her interesting.
The married man who becomes hooked on her, Weston Liggett, begins as intriguingly flawed, but soon becomes ridiculous (making it all the more difficult to figure out what in the world Gloria sees in him). Weston's final ignoble act truly is affecting, however: it is how O'Hara got him to that point, in a sort of grotesque series of coincidences and abrupt decisions, that troubles.
I can see why the novel was the success that it was. ("Will leave scar tissue in reader's brain..." reads the Chicago Tribune blurb.) Sex is all over the book, sometimes beautifully portrayed in its absurd machinations and patent hunger. When we first meet Gloria, she walks out of the apartment in the stolen mink coat of her lover's wife, naked underneath because her clothes had been torn off the night before, and were unwearable. O'Hara, to a sometimes frustrating point, depends upon the language of gesture and implication to speak sex, but it suits the do-but-don't-tell culture he's conveying. That Gloria is not only a victim but an enthusiastic consumer of sex, while still being an empathetic (if doomed) character must have been revolutionary for 1935, when the book was published. This is not least because so much of the sex and sexuality in the book is rendered from the woman's point of view.
As well, money and illegal liquor adorn the lives of Weston, Gloria, and the others, like apples do an apple tree. BUtterfield 8 gives the reader an insider's peek into the soap-operatic lifestyles of Depression-era cosmopolitans and bohemians. The book practically screams "mass appeal!" But it has just enough of O'Hara's writerly ambition -- his literary panoramas of the city, his doubling-back in the plot's structure, his graceful style of unfolding narrative -- to appear above the fray.
But in the end, the sort of thing that O'Hara tried to do in BUtterfield 8 were done much, much better sixteen years later by William Styron in Lie Down in Darkness.