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.
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.