A Way of Life, Like Any Other, by Darcy O’Brien
Singing in the Rain is one of my favourite films. If you don’t know it, it’s about the advent of talkies and how some film stars couldn’t make the transition from the silents to the new world of sound. Many careers were ended effectively overnight.
A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a semi-autobiographical novel. Its unnamed narrator is the son of a once glamorous Hollywood couple. As the novel opens, the father is a star famous for working with John Ford among many others. The mother has been a successful actress in her own right, both on stage and screen.
This isn’t a novel of glittering lives though. Although the father’s career does survive the end of the silent movie period, after the war he finds he’s no longer in demand and by the time the narrator’s eight years old his parents are separated and their glory days are distinctly over.
This then is a coming-of-age novel set in what in one sense is a very unusual context, golden-age Hollywood with parents who used to be household names. In another sense though it’s a very common context, that of growing up with parents who hate each other and who seem smaller to an adolescent than they did to a young child. Their way of life is unusual, but it’s a way of life which, for all that, is like any other.
The novel opens with the narrator’s memories of when things were fine, the days at the Casa Fiesta when his parents were still together, rich and in demand. They have staff, they get preferred seats at the baseball and gifts from the players, there are exotic presents and horse riding and all the trappings of Hollywood success.
All that happiness though just sets the scene for what follows. The narrator’s mother is a monster of selfishness, the father weak and confused once he’s no longer needed by the world. The mother goes looking for the perfect man, travelling across Europe and blaming others for everything that goes wrong. The father ends up living with his wife’s mother who treats him with contempt. Where once he had grand adventures, now he makes up tall tales to make his life seem better than it is.
It sounds bleak, but curiously it isn’t. That’s in part because of O’Brien’s gift for dialogue. Many of the conversations are painful ones, but many others are extremely funny (a family friend’s monologue about his life in the avocado business stands out).
It’s the writing though that’s most impressive about the novel. It’s intelligent and subtle. By way of example, early on when the narrator is a child things are described largely without comment – they’re accepted as simply being what they are, as a child would; we’re left to form our own views of people’s behaviour and what it means. Later, as the narrator enters adolescence, he becomes judgemental and the language of the novel becomes judgemental too. It also becomes angrier, teenage emotions invading the prose style itself.
The descriptive passages are excellent. This is very much a Californian novel (not that it was written there I think) and as I read it I could feel the light and the space, even when the narrator was living in the cramped corner of his mother’s sculptor-lover’s studio. O’Brien brings his locations to life. I could see Casa Fiesta, Hollywood, the huge home of Mr. Caliban (a family friend and successful director the narrator goes to live with for a while), Vegas. There’s a strong sense of period too, it’s the 1950s and sex, prosperity and a new freedom are in the air.
One of the reasons I write a blog is that it forces me to think about what I read. The act of writing about a novel makes me engage with it. When I sat down to write this blog entry, I had the two quotes I’m about to use already in mind, one as an example of a playful use of language that worked, and the other as an example of where it didn’t work. Writing my blog, I realised that the second example is cleverer than I realised.
O’Brien is a writer who likes language and who likes to play with words. That’s not play with words in a punny sense. Rather, he plays with them in the sense that he’ll take a word and make it stand out or make the reader suddenly engage with the prose as prose. Here’s my first example, from very early in the book:
These were the Malibu days, the Casa Fiesta days, when I ambled with the ungulates in the chaparral, heard visiting priests celebrate mass in the private chapel to Our Lady of Guadalupe, played with the toys my parents brought me from their travels, the stuffed baby condor from the Andes, the tiny samovar, the voodoo doll, the tortoise shell I used to bathe my puppy in.
He “ambled with the ungulates”. It shouldn’t work, but actually I think that’s a great paragraph. Originally I had noted this next quote as an example of where it didn’t work, but I was wrong. Here it is:
It seems that the wire mattress, rusted and rotted by his nocturnal diuresis, a condition wholly attributable to his state of mind, which caused him to forget to do things the rest of us accomplish through habit and instinct, had collapsed under his weight.
What I had originally planned to write was that the sentence collapses under its own weight. Then I realised, well yes, so it does. It collapses under its own weight in the same way the bed collapses. It’s yet another piece of subtle writing from a novel that rewards a close and thoughtful read.
I’ve not talked here about O’Brien’s own background growing up in Hollywood. I’ve not in fact read up on it much as my interest is in the novel as a novel, not how much draws from life. That said, O’Brien’s knowledge of Hollywood runs through the book and there’s a casual familiarity with the movie business that does make it all the more convincing. Here’s the narrator talking about making movies:
“All right,” I said, “I’ll tell you something. If I was making a picture about Jesus Christ, I’d play up the anger in the temple thing, the fainthearted thing in the Garden of Gethsemane. And I’d get a knockout to play Mary Magdalene. You see it? The human element. …”
At the end of the day though this isn’t primarily a Hollywood novel. It’s a novel about the narrator’s parents and their failed marriage and ruined lives. As it goes on it gets darker – showing people who were once larger than life now small and petty. It’s a compassionate novel though for all that, and there’s a clear wish that things had worked out better for them:
My inquiries into human understanding had taught me that my father was as constantly constant as a rock and my mother as constantly inconstant as the sea, and that wasn’t much to go on. A rock as big as my father you could not throw, but you could hide behind it and rest in its shadow. When it fell into the sea, it sank.
I have Guy Savage to thank for bringing this book to my attention. His excellent review is here, and he spoke of it further in the comments section to one of my own entries (I forget which sadly).
A Way of Life, Like Any Other. I don’t always like the NYRB covers, but this one I think is wonderfully evocative and very well chosen. There’s also a nice introduction by Seamus Heaney.