The New York Review of Books Classics series is a marvellous creation, an eclectic mix of fabulously-jacketed titles, invariably accompanied by compelling intros. A recent serendipitous dip into the collection blessed us with A Way of Life Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien, the story of a young boy in 1950’s Hollywood, his movie star parents and their sordid and absurd descent into has-been territory. Irresistibly described as ‘completely bananas’, we find out what happens after the glitter fades, in a bizarre coming-of-age novel that combines hilarity with a dash of vinegar.
First published in 1977, O’Brien’s award-winning debut is semi-autobiographical. He was himself born into Hollywood glamour. Both his parents were silent film stars, which begs the question of whether his own childhood was quite as eye-poppingly unconventional as the one portrayed here.
We come to know our infant protagonist by his nickname, Salty, but initially Little Lord Fauntleroy would seem a more apt moniker. He is the precocious, tweed-suited darling of his parents’ parties, where he recites poetry, hands out canapés and considers a future career as a diplomat.
These are the golden pre-war days. Salty’s father stars in Westerns, the king of the cowboys, who even on his days off can be found striding around stripped to the waist or riding horseback into the hills. When fashion and fortune changes, his career crumbles, along with Salty’s mother’s, who subsequently sequesters herself in an L.A. mansion with her son and goes full-throttle Norma Desmond.
In one pivotal scene, she calls Salty into her bedroom, where he finds her weeping and ‘clinging to the bedpost like Christ awaiting the scourge’. On attempting to slit her wrists, she finds she just can’t let Salty deal with the aftermath of pools of blood on the parquet.
‘You can thank me for that, my darling. I love you too much, like a mother.’
Salty duly thanks her, and listens while she blames the entire episode on his father. The problem is that she’s just too romantic. A woman who has ridden on camelback through the blowing sands of the Sahara and suffered more than Anna Karenina, should never be expected to settle for such a fool as his father. Salty concurs that his father has certainly degenerated. Desperate to help, he acknowledges her plea of ‘God help me find the perfect man,’ and they set off on an inter-continental quest to replace her inadequate husband.
The joy of this deliciously unhinged read lies in Salty’s dry, deadpan observations of their ensuing escapades, but his hitherto unquestioning support begins to waver as his mother’s self-serving ways become increasingly evident. Money woes, unsuitable men, and booze may be her undoing.
Meanwhile, Salty’s father leads a diminished life, waiting in the wings for his son’s attention.
Hilarious and tragic, flamboyant and ultimately poignant, O’Brien’s novel is complemented by an illuminating introduction from Seamus Heaney.
A Way of Life Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien is published by NYRB, 176 pages.