A Way of Life, Like Any Other, by Darcy O’Brien (review)

Darcy O’Brien was the son of actor George O’Brien (star of several silent films and 1930s Westerns), and stage and screen actress Marguerite Churchill, a frequent co-star of John Wayne. A Way of Life, Like Any Other, is Darcy’s semi-autobiographical novel inspired by his experiences of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s and ‘50s. It’s a terrific novel: part compassionate satire, part touching coming-of-age story, and another absolute gem from NYRB Classics. Guy and Max have already written such great reviews of A Way of Life that I doubt whether my thoughts will add much to the discussion. But if nothing else, I hope this post might encourage one or two other readers to take a look at this noteworthy book.

As the novel opens, the unnamed narrator recalls the idyllic days of his early childhood years living with his mother and father at the Casa Fiesta ranch in Malibu. His father is a famous actor, in demand for films and personal appearances, and the family are living the high life enjoying all the benefits that success can bring.

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All too soon though, this dream world crumbles around them. As the father’s career fades away, life strips the family of many of their glamorous possessions and pleasures, and a divorce is inevitable. By the time the narrator is twelve, he is living with his melodramatic, alcoholic mother acting as her confidante and helping her through the bad times. In this passage, the narrator remembers life as a twelve-year-old:

The dinner parties were amusing unless Mother allowed herself to get too drunk before they were well under way. I would act as bartender and I would know it as a sign of trouble if she took little drink from me, because that meant she was swilling in the kitchen. Guests praised my highballs and martinis and wondered that a twelve-year-old could attain such skills.

“He’s the man of the house,” my mother would say. “Children should be treated as adults. Make Maggie another bourbon.” (pg. 15)

Mother embarks on a search for the perfect man, the love of her life, a man who can finally make her happy. Men come and go, some stay longer than others, but none of them seem terribly suitable. Guy’s review contains a wonderful quote on a couple of the contenders: the father’s handball partner (a short-term player) and the guy who invented the Hawaiian shirt (he lasts almost a year).

Then Mother meets Anatol, a Russian sculptor who finances his art by making mock-ups of animals for Disney. Anatol looks to be a strong bet; he’s rumoured to be the best lay in Hollywood, and his status as an artist puts him at the top of Mother’s pecking order:

I had only an approximate idea of what being the best lay involved, or of what it might involve to Maggie or to Mother, but I knew that Mother considered artists a superior class, on a scale that ran down toward men of independent wealth, Marine colonels, corporation executives, journalists and retail businessmen, with actors at the bottom. Athletes and manual laborers never entered her mind. (pg. 21)

Mother marries Anatol, but the relationship is a stormy one. She is self-centred and demanding; nothing he (or any other man) can do is ever good enough, and a trip to Europe ends in disaster. As an example of her behaviour, here’s Mother when she asks the narrator’s father to pay the boy’s fare to Paris so he can meet her there:

“What do you mean you won’t pay for it? For Christ’s sake what kind of a father are you? I suppose you want him to sit around this crummy town for the rest of his life with all the bums. Don’t you want him to see what culture is? Do you want him to grow up uneducated not knowing anything better than how to shovel horse manure? You’re broke, what a laugh that is. I know you’ve got money stashed away I never knew anything about. You called that a settlement! I don’t care if you are broke, you haven’t worked in fifteen years, what do you expect? It’s not like the old days getting thousands for sitting on your ass on a horse…” (pgs 41-42)

O’Brien has a great ear for speech and dialogue, and that’s just one of many quotable passages in this novel.

Following his divorce, the father ends up moving in with his ex-mother-in-law, ‘a tough, unsentimental plainswoman’ who considers him worthless and contemptible. When his mother decides to stay in Europe on a permanent basis, the narrator goes to live with his father and grandmother. With his movie days apparently behind him, the father is lost and diminished. Searching for meaning in life, he gets swept up by a religious craze, attending Mass and participating in every Church function that moves. His faded glamour still retains some currency here:

The Ladies’ Altar Society, which arranged flowers, kept the sacramental bread and wine in stock, and laundered the costumes of the infant of Prague, had made him an honorary member. He twirled the cage at bingo, he raffled automobiles and turkeys. When the parish sedan was broken down or otherwise in use, he chauffeured priests on their errands of mercy. He never missed a funeral. Because of his physique and the glamour that still trailed from him, he was in great demand as a pallbearer. (pg. 54)

The narrator’s Granny wears the trousers; she has a hard heart and resents the boy’s presence in her house. Things look up though when a high-school friend, Jerry Caliban, invites the narrator to come and live with his family in Beverley Hills. Not since his Casa Fiesta days has the boy experienced such a warm and loving family living together in joy and harmony.

The Caliban era is one of my favourite sections in the novel; it’s full of sketches of the Caliban’s house, their lives and habits. Mr Caliban is a movie director, a friendly guy with the common touch. (He started small and worked his way up.) When the narrator arrives at the Caliban’s house in Beverley Hills, he can tell they have money. Mrs. Caliban has an allowance of $25,000 a year just to go to the horse races.

Mrs. Caliban’s bedroom knocked your eyes out. It was entirely chartreuse, the walls, the rug, the bedspread, everything. The bed was a four-poster job and the chartreuse hangings had been made to order by some nuns in France. In each of the corners of the room stood a stuffed bear, Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear. Papa Bear was as tall as the ceiling, Mama Bear about eight feet, and Baby Bear about the size of an average American male human being. These, I learned, were symbolic of Caliban family members, and Mr. and Mrs. Caliban called each other “Bear” or sometimes “Big Bear” and “Little Bear” out of affection. “Why we’ll just have to get another Baby Bear now you’re here, won’t we sweetie?” Mrs. Caliban said to me. Sometimes she slept with one of the Bear family. (pg.61)

O’Brien’s description of a Thanksgiving trip to Las Vegas is another highlight from this section. Mr. Caliban sweats it out in a thirty-hour non-stop gambling session; it’s a pivotal episode.

In the final stages of the novel, the narrator moves back in with his father. Granny has died, and father has neglected the house allowing it to go to rack and ruin. There are some touching scenes as the teenager helps his father get to get back on his feet, and a sense of camaraderie develops between the two. The old movie star still holds out some faint hope of going places.

A Way of Life is a wonderful novel – it’s funny, sad, ironic and sympathetic. In many ways it reminds me of early-to-mid-period Woody Allen (you know, the good ones). At one point during the narrator’s Paris trip, there’s a terrific vignette of a married couple arguing over the task of mailing their postcards home. I could visualise it in an Allen movie.

The writing is note-perfect (Max’s review includes some great examples of the author’s playful use of language). Despite the horrors of the boy’s childhood, the early chapters are warm, compassionate and full of humour. The warmth also comes through when the narrator falls for Linda, an attractive girl he admires during English class.

As the boy matures, the novel’s style and tone develop too. The final chapters covering the boy’s teenage years are tinged with anger and bitterness. He sees his mother for what she really is, a self-interested wreck who has failed to live up to his hopes and dreams. Towards the end, the narrator feels trapped by his father’s desire to cling on to the past, a wish to relive the memories and fantasies of years gone by. I’ll leave it there as I want to avoid saying anything more about the finish.

A Way of Life is one of my favourite novels of the year so far, a near certainty for my end-of-year list.

A Way of Life, Like Any Other, by Darcy O’Brien is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 12/20 in my #TBR20.

49 thoughts on “A Way of Life, Like Any Other, by Darcy O’Brien (review)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Poppy. It is utterly fabulous. As Max mentioned on twitter, it’s wonderfully warm and charming in its own way. One of the highlights of my #TBR20.

      Reply
  1. Séamus Duggan

    Sounds great Jacqui. I vaguely remember reading one of the other reviews you mention. Although I feel that my TBR should be addressed somewhat like your own. Maybe with a #TBR2000 or something.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is brilliant, Seamus…and the quotes should you a good feel for the style. I think you’d enjoy it very much.

      Ah, yes, the old #TBR20…I finished book twenty a couple of weeks ago but my reviews are lagging behind a little with another four to come. I’ve just started another #TBR20, but that still leaves several hundred unread books in the house. I don’t think I’ve quite hit the thousands yet, but it might have to be #TBR220.

      Btw, I read another Nathanael West at the weekend — A Cool Million — and I much preferred it to Miss Lonelyhearts. Still very dark, but I liked it (and it still feels relevant to the financial events of recent years). Maybe there’s hope for me yet. ;)

      Reply
  2. gertloveday

    Neurotic, disappointed mothers seem to have a particular knack of twisting the hearts of their sons. The title is very interesting, though. Does it suggest some sort of coming to terms with his experience? I believe he wrote another novel called “Margaret in Hollywood” which I suppose must be based on his mother. Do you know anything about that one?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Don’t they just? The title is interesting, and Max talks about it in his review. In one way, the boy’s home life is rather unconventional due to the Hollywood connection, but in another sense, his situation is fairly common. The parents have separated, they can’t stand one another, and the boy is caught in the middle of it all…so in that sense, the boy’s life is not terribly unusual. I do think he comes to terms with his experience as he appears to wise up in his teenage years. It can’t have been easy for him though. This could have been a very angry and bitter book, but it isn’t at all, far from it (Max and Guy comment on this too). With the possible exception of one or two sections on the boy’s life as a teenager, it’s quite a warm and affectionate portrayal.

      I’m not familiar with Margaret in Hollywood, but your comment leaves me curious to learn more. Just looked it up on a certain retailer’s website, and it sounds great.

      Guy, Max – please chip in if you know anything about this one.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Terrific review as always Jacqui.

    This sounds like a very interesting character study. Some of the plot developments that you describe also sound unconventional.

    Thanks for the Woody Allen comparison, it helps to paint the picture.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Oh, yes, there are some very interesting characters here. It’s just full of wonderful scenes and dialogue that I could imagine seeing and hearing in a Woody Allen film. I’m glad the reference helped as I think it’s a good indicator of the novel’s style.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I loved it! Thanks for putting me on to it in the first place – I have you and Max to thank for this one. It came right in the middle of a run of great books, but I’ll have to find a place for it on my end of year list. The whole relationship with Anatol was doomed from the start, wasn’t it? Absolutely nuts.

      Have you read or heard of Margaret in Hollywood, the novel Gert mentioned in her comments? It sounds like another gem.

      Reply
  4. Max Cairnduff

    It made my best of year list too. Warm is the word isn’t it? It’s such an affectionate novel, and the same material could have been used to write something dark and angry, but instead it’s as you say compassionate. It’s absolutely lovely.

    I don’t know of another one, but this is such a marvel that I can’t really think of many people I wouldn’t recommend it to. If there is more that’d be great.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely. I found the boy’s relationship with his father quite touching at times. I had another quote that didn’t make the final cut, but I think you’ll like it. A nice touch of camaraderie between father and son following a strategy meeting with Marshall (Marsh), the guy who dreams of making a film about General MacArthur:

      “…The banks control everything these days. Some Wall Street lawyer. They tell us what to do and they never cleaned a stable. You can’t tell about these things. I never give up on anything. I liked what you said in there tonight. You got horse sense. You could walk into a board room right now and tell them where to get off. Between the two of us, son, you’ve got it up here and I’ve got the experience that nothing else can teach you, we could go places. Of course, poor old Marsh, he ain’t going nowhere, you know what I mean?” (pg.103)

      I’m going to recommend it to a couple of friends as it’s right up their street. Margaret in Hollywood has got to be worth a shot, surely? And it’s available on kindle. :)

      Reply
  5. roughghosts

    Definitely sounds like a worthy read, not the sort of thing I would have stumbled across on my own but that is the joy (danger) of reading book blogs! I will have to add it to the list…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s the thing…I doubt whether I would have found this novel without the benefit of reading book blogs. A Way of Life is a good one if you’re ever looking for a something warm and affectionate. It’s laugh-out-loud funny.

      Reply
  6. bookbii

    Great review Jacqui, you really evoke the spirit of the book. I love NYRB imprints and this one sounds right up my street: honest, personable, warm and character-filled. I’ll be looking this one up, thanks.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. NYRB Classics are great, aren’t they? I just love what they do. ‘Honest, personable, warm and character-filled’ is a great way of summarising the style of this novel, that’s it exactly!

      Reply
  7. Scott W.

    There are so many great Los Angeles novels, and this certainly ranks up there. Writing for film/TV must help; as you point out, O’Brien has a great ear for dialogue. I also have to give kudos to NYRB for another inspired cover choice in going with the Slim Aarons photo. It’s astonishing how often their covers are pitch perfect for the books.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I was wondering if you’d read this one, Scott. Delighted to hear you enjoyed it as I thought it would be right up your street. I love the cover too. It’s perfect – the image, the colours, the light, everything. It seems to capture the idyllic sun-kissed days at the Casa Fiesta.

      Have you read anything else by O’Brien? Margaret in Hollywood sounds worthy of investigation. And speaking of Los Angeles novels, My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes is another favourite. I’m pretty sure you’ve read it, but if not it’s well worth seeking out…another great find from NYRB.

      Reply
      1. Scott W.

        I have not read any other Darcy O’Brien, but should (though perhaps not the crime books). The Slim Aarons photo books are also well worth picking up – if you happen to have wads of cash lying about.

        I loved the Alfred Hayes book too – which reminds me, I need to read his others.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh yes, the crime ones sound rather grisly.

          Re: Slim Aarons, there’s a gallery here in London (Getty Images), and it looks as though they’ve held the occasional Aarons exhibition in the past. I’ll have to investigate and keep an eye out for any future shows.

          I’d like to read more of Hayes, too. In Love is sitting on one of my bookshelves, and I have The Girl on the Via Flaminia on kindle. I must read one soon.

          Btw, I read Nathanael West’s A Cool Million (it was short!) and I kind of clicked with it…you were right about that politician. It’s disturbing to think just how many aspects of the story remain relevant especially in light of relatively recent economic events. I’m still not sure about West’s treatment of women (there’s something very disagreeable about that of his work), but I much preferred A Cool Million to Miss Lonelyhearts. Thanks for the recommendation, Scott. :)

          Reply
          1. Scott W.

            I wandered over to the library today to find In Love and instead found a gaping hole where all of Alfred Hayes’ works should have been. No one knew what had happened to them! Grrrr!

            I may have to reread West now. Ouf – so much to read, so little time.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Argh! Could you persuade your library to source another copy of In Love? I might try to get to it in the next month or two as its been a while since I read My Face.

              Well, if you do revisit West, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

              Reply
  8. litlove

    I read this four or so years ago – just long enough that the details are very hazy! It was such a pleasure to read your excellent review and be reminded of it. I completely agree – it’s a wonderful book, essentially because the writing is so sharp and clean and vivid. I have another by the same author on my shelves, though the title evades me now. I should look it out!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Victoria. I’m so glad you enjoyed this one, too. It’s an absolute delight, isn’t it? I loved the warmth in the writing and, as you say, its so sharp and vivid. Now I’m wondering which of O’Brien’s other books you have on your shelves…Margaret in Hollywood sounds as if it could be another winner.

      Reply
  9. Caroline

    Lovely review. And it sounds like such a wonderful book. I wonder why I can’t remember Max and Guy’s review usually when they like a novel, I know I’ll like it as well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. It’s a brilliant book, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Max’s review was five years ago so we’re going back quite a few years. Guy’s was more recent, although I believe it was a reread so his original review may have been several years earlier. :)

      Reply
  10. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    It’s so interesting that you describe a potentially bleak and even disturbing situation with the words “warm” and “compassionate.” That has really piqued my interest! On the list it goes…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s quite a marvel as the boy seems remarkably well-adjusted for someone who has grown up in such unconventional and potentially distressing circumstances. It could have been a story full of anger and bitterness, but the writing is warm and rather affectionate in its own way. There are signs of rebellion in the boy’s teenage years, but I guess that’s only to be expected. I loved this one – it’s very amusing, a real treasure.

      Reply
  11. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a brilliant novel – I think you’d like this one, Emma. It reminded me a little of some of Woody Allen’s better films, the warmth and humour of it all. An absolute delight :)

      Reply
  12. Pingback: Finishing my #TBR20 – a few reflections | JacquiWine's Journal

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