I just got done reading John O’Hara’s sophomore effort, BUtterfield 8 (1935), and it was terrific, but one bitter little pill of a book.
If Fitzgerald and Hemmingway wrote about the post WWI “lost generation” of the 1920’s, O’Hara wrote about the period when the party was over, the 1930’s, and this one is set during the waning days of Prohibition in Manhattan, and you could safely say that the principle themes are social class, sex and alcohol, and nobody’s happy. The narrative revolves around the adventures of a very lost Gloria Wandrous and her relationship with the very married Weston Liggett.
Some of the novel’s bitterness seems to come from O’Hara himself. He grew up in a solidly middle class home and expected to go to Yale, that is until his physician father died when O’Hara was a teenager. No college for him, and Yale was an obsession for the rest of his life, one of a social climbing alcoholic with few, if any, friends. That said, he was a prodigious author, and a regular at the New Yorker.
O’Hara has been out of literary fashion for ages now, and that is a shame as he has a lot to say about life in America, and in ways that still speak to us in 2017. Americans like to pride themselves on their sunny optimism, their exceptionalism, but we’ve always had a dark side. In John O’Hara’s world, America is a sad and lonely place.
John Elliott, Librarian
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