Coming of age in Hollywood

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

Way of lifeMany book bloggers are fans of the NYRB Classics, and I think I first heard about this short novel from Thomas a tHogglestock and promptly acquired a copy which has sat on my shelves for a while – until encouraged by comments on my yellow TBR pile post to read it by Jacquiwine.  Guy Savage and Max Cairnduff have also reviewed it.

I’d never heard of O’Brien – turns out this literature professor was the son of movie actors whose stars were on the wane in the 1950s. His mother, Marguerite Churchill having been John Wayne’s first leading lady. With that experience, what better to write about than what you know…

Our narrator is never named, but as he starts to tell his story, which begins before the war, his family live on a ranch Casa Fiesta where they entertain.

By the age of five, I could amuse my parents and their friends after dinner, when they would sit before the great eucalyptus fire drinking café diablo. Three or four cars would arrive every weekend, and it was a long drive back to Los Angeles, so people would usually stay the night. When conversation livened, my father would send the matriarchs away, and I would like back for a while, absorbing everything and making occasional comments such as “Is that so?” or “I hadn’t realized that before” until everyone would forget what I was and begin addressing remarks to me:
“They were over budget by a million and a half after two weeks.”
“Is that so?”
“Helen Hayes never got through a scond act without dropping half her lines.”
“I hadn’t realized that.”
“You don’t know what hell is like until  you’ve been a woman directed by Jack Ford.”
“I’d never have guessed that.”

However, his family’s fortunes do not endure, for his parents split up and fortunes are dissipated. By the end of the war he was living in a house with his mother, who is flighty in the extreme.

One night I was awakened by cries from her bedroom. I went in to find her weeping and unclothed, clinging to the bedpost like Christ awaiting the scourge.

She does have a steady stream of admirers of whom a five foot two Russian sculptor called Anatol is the one that sticks, and soon they are off to Rome via Paris.  Our narrator goes with them at first, but returns from Paris to a choice: go live with his father who was living with his mother-in-law or find someone else to take him in. He strikes lucky with the latter option, going to live for a while with the Calibans, their son Jerry being his best friend at school. Sam Caliban is a movie producer and his house is big, brash and dripping with money in grand Hollywood excess:

Upstairs, Mr Caliban’s bedroom was  done in a Genghis Khan motif, all red, black and silver with weapons on the walls and a full set of Mongolian armor standing in a corner. Mr Caliban used the armor to hang his suits on, when he came home from work and changed into his relaxing clothes. Mrs Caliban’s bedroom knocked your eyes out. It was entirely chartreuse, the walls, the rug, the bedspread, everything. […] In each of three corners of the room stood a stuffed bear, Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear. […] 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.

He ends up back living with his father once his granny dies, and by now an older teenager, he takes charge, bringing his dad’s now lax standards back up a good few notches. Besides looking after his father his attention is firmly on girls, Linda in particular – and his attempts to get laid are quite comical.

It’s quite something that the narrator seems alone in appearing normal among a cast of characters that all could have stepped off the screen straight onto the page, all are exaggerated and painted with the brush of caricature. However large they are writ, the author has his narrator recount their eccentricities with deadpan wit without judging them for the most part which is rather touching.

In this edition, Seamus Heaney’s introduction analyzes some of the literary allusions in O’Brien’s text, particularly to Joyce and Ulysses, also his O’Brien namesake, Flann. Darcy O’Brien’s theses had been on Joyce. I’ve not read Joyce, Flann O’Brien or Yeats and the other Irish authors that Seamus cites as influences, so took it at face value as an autobiographically based bildungsroman which I enjoyed very much indeed. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy

Darcy O’Brien, A Way of Life, LIke Any Other, 1977. NYRB paperback, 155 pages.

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