Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 240 pages; 2008.
John O’Hara’s BUtterfield 8 is an evocative portrait of New York in the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929. Into this altered world, where the newly rich have lost fortunes and others are knuckling down to protect their assets, comes good-time girl Gloria Wandrous.
The book opens in sensational style with Gloria waking up alone in a stranger’s apartment. Her evening dress, ripped down the middle, has been cast aside. Wanting to escape, but with nothing to wear, she steals an expensive mink coat from the wardrobe. The theft of the coat becomes a catalyst for a series of events that lead, eventually, to tragedy.
Young and carefree, Gloria flouts all the rules in which women are expected to marry a nice man, settle down and start a family. Instead, she befriends men in illegal bars and usually ends up sleeping with them, with no plan to ever see them again. But then she meets Weston Liggett, a man 20 years her senior, and her life takes a different, more dramatic turn…
BUtterfield 8, which is set in 1930, was written in 1935, giving it a truly authentic period feel. There are constant references to famous people of the time — politicians, musicians, criminals — and contemporary events. The city is dotted with hundreds of speakeasies, and Gloria frequents many of them, because she likes a bit of a tipple (“She became one of the world’s heaviest drinkers between 1927 and 1930, when the world saw some pretty heavy drinking”).
While Gloria is quite a feisty character, worldly-wise beyond her years, it’s hard not to see her increasingly outrageous behaviour — “where she awed the bartenders by the amount she drank”, went on 48-hour benders and slept with a succession of married men — as a cry for help. At times I was very much reminded of Jean Rhys’ work in which females are regarded as nothing more than the playthings of men.
But where Rhys’ characters are often stuck in desperate circumstances with no route out, O’Hara provides Gloria with a strong support network — a lovely platonic friendship with Ed, a small circle of female friends, a non-judgemental mother and an Uncle happy to provide her with a roof over her head and a generous allowance. And yet Gloria, for whatever reason, is set to carve her own way in life, with catastrophic consequences. She is sympathetically and realistically drawn, and one of the best females, written by a man, that I’ve ever come across. Her terrible treatment of a black maid (towards the end of the novel), only serves to highlight her lowly position in the pecking order.
Despite its occasionally disjointed narrative and its huge cast of characters, BUtterfield 8 is a wonderful read. It not only brings 1930s New York to life, it chronicles the ways in which the conservative facade of society was simply a front for order and morality, while so much more was going on behind the scenes…