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

I would not change the beginning for anything.”

Author Darcy O’Brien (1939-1998) was best known for books on true crime, including Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers. While I’ve read about the case, I won’t be reading that book about a couple of sickos who hunted, tortured and killed women in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s. Given that O’Brien produced a seminal book on those brutal murderers, it’s practically impossible to align that part of O’Brien’s career with A Way of Life, Like Any Other, his wonderfully lighthearted book told by a young man, the sole offspring of unstable Hollywood film stars. O’Brien was the child of silent star George O’Brien and actress Marguerite Churchill, and while no doubt O’Brien incorporated many experiences from his real life into the book, some major differences exist.

Our unnamed narrator begins by recollecting the golden years of his early childhood which was spent mostly at Casa Fiesta, a ranch in the Malibu hills owned by his father. It’s here that the narrator lives an almost dream childhood. He’s the cosseted son of Hollywood film stars, and while his surroundings are real, there’s still a sense of fabrication–as though someone somewhere has sketched an idea of stage-set perfection, but as always in the book, the narrator’s parents behave inappropriately, and we see that sneaking into the scene even in these halcyon days:

I would not change the beginning for anything. I had an electric car, a starched white nanny, a pony, a bed modeled after that of Napoleon’s son, and I was baptized by the archbishop of the diocese. I wore hats and sucked on a little pipe.

The only child surrounded by various Hollywood luminaries, the narrator’s role, even in early childhood, seemed to cast him as part of the entertainment, a miniature adult. The first crack in this picture appears when the narrator is seven and his mother begins talking longingly about New York. Meanwhile the boy’s father, George, lives the acting roles he loves by dressing as a cowboy all in black and riding his horse “just like the old padres” even when he’s off the set. There’s a telling moment when George decides to take a grueling four day trek by horse to Santa Barbara which is ended by a stay in a luxury hotel, an expensive meal, and a drive home in a Lincoln.

The war intervenes in everyone’s lives, and after that, nothing is the same.

Life turned round on Mother and Dad, and stripped them of their goods and pleasures. It was not the war that did it, but by the end of the war everything had changed.

The marriage between the narrator’s parents sours and peels apart. At first, the pre-teen narrator lives with his needy, hysteric mother in Los Angeles, and their roles, in terms of maturity and responsibility are reversed; he’s her confidant throughout her many love affairs, her nurse when she attempts suicide and her 12-year-old bartender for the parties she throws. A long, steady stream of unsuitable men pass though their lives:

Mr. Johnny Standfast, whose real name turned out to be Reilly, and who had been a handball partner of my father’s at the Hollywood Athletic Club, came to stay for a week, but the old magic didn’t click. He left with a black eye. The man who invented the Hawaiian shirt ran strong for almost a year. He would fly in from Honolulu and take us to expensive restaurants. We were going to live on his yacht. Life would be an endless cruise. Then he began to notice mother’s drinking, and one morning he had to drive me to school because she couldn’t get up. Mother said she hated the sun anyway. She had had enough of it with my father.

Aging and losing her looks, the narrator’s mother confesses that she’s spent her life “looking for the perfect man, the perfect love.” After a series of disastrous relationships, the ‘perfect’ man turns out to be Anatol, a short Russian sculptor, a “compact rhino of a man” who works for Disney, but this regular paycheck supports Anatol’s real love–statues of “mythological creatures performing sexual acts of every description.”

As his mother’s life sinks into alcohol-soaked drama, eventually the narrator returns to live with his father.  George, “his money almost gone, his wife gone altogether, his motion picture career apparently behind him,”  lives “in diminished circumstances,“with his ex-wife’s mother, a strange arrangement laced with disgust:

She watched him pining and growing fatter and behaving more and more peculiarly. He had fallen into a religious mania, attending mass and taking holy communion every morning, participating in every sort of church function–novenas, missions, Holy Name Society breakfasts. The Ladies’ Alter Society, which arranged flowers, kept the sacrament bread and wine in stock, and laundered the costumes of the Infant of Prague, had made him an honorary member. He twirled the cage at bingo, he raffled automobiles and turkeys. When the parish sedan was broken down or otherwise in use, he chauffeured the priests on their errands of mercy. He never missed a funeral. Because of his physic and the glamour that still trailed from him, he was in great demand as a pallbearer.

With “the Navy and the Church” now the “twin props of his existence,” George’s ex-mother-in-law addresses him derisively as Captain, yet this militarism invades the household with George granting her military status and promoting her rank periodically.

Within a month of Mother’s desertion she was made Chief Petty Officer, and soon afterwards Chief Engineer and First Mate. Yet her climb in status was accompanied by no improvement in her decorum. She flouted military discipline, rising and retiring in defiance of the Order of the Day; defacing the labels he so painstakingly affixed to every cupboard, closet, and drawer; taking out the garbage on the windward side of the house; refusing to stand watch, causing many a sleepless night for him; battening down the hatch to her compartment so that it was impossible for him to carry out his inspection rounds; countermanding his orders for provisions

George trying to run his ex-mother-in-law’s house to military standards is, of course, very eccentric, but the behaviour goes deeper and addresses George’s need to bring status, order and some meaning to his life. No wonder then that the narrator imagines he’s found greener pastures when he moves in with the son of a famous director, but if he’s hoping to find the stability that has so far eluded him, he still has lessons to learn. Affluence does not equal stability, and neither is it a replacement.

Upstairs, Mr Caliban’s bedroom was done in a Genghis Kahn motif, all read, black, and silver with weapons on the walls and full set of Mongolian armour 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. The bed was a four-poster job and the chartreuse hangings had been made to order by some nuns in France.

This story could have been written with anger, resentment and bitterness, but there’s none of that here. A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a coming-of-age story told by a young man who grows up & matures in spite of his many problems. While never critical of his parents, the narrator instead matures to understanding and acceptance, approaching his damaged parents with empathy & humour, and part of the book’s magically light tone is created by the narrator’s initially naïve explanations of the unfiltered adult life which surrounds him. He grows up listening to a running commentary of his father’s faults, but there’s one painful moment when he sees his father’s weak character unadorned by movie screen presence or Navy bluster, and it’s a scene of painful truth.

For Max’s review 

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20 Comments

Filed under Fiction, O'Brien Darcy

20 responses to “A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

  1. Robyn

    True crime books are so fascinating to me. I have read “Two of a kind: The Hillside Stranglers.” It was very well done. My all time favorite true crime author is Ann Rule. She always does such a good job. I especially like the book “The Stranger Beside Me.” Ann Rule worked directly with Ted Bundy and corresponded with him while he was in prison. This is THE Ted Bundy book. Ann has updated all her books on eformat. http://www.planetannrule.com/ I am reading all of them!

    • I have read some true crime books, but I know enough about the case to know that the book about the Hillside Stranglers would really trouble me. I just watched the film Torso (recommended ) and found it very interesting–interesting enough to consider reading more about the Evelyn Dick case.

      I have a friend who is a Rule fan and reads all of her books too.

  2. Brian Joseph

    It is intriguing how some writers can portray darkness so well but also can shift easily into the lighthearted and positive. On the other hand that is a accurate reflection real life for so many maybe this should not surprise is.

    I still find it refreshing when a writer can shift gears like this.

  3. I read this a couple of years ago and liked it a lot – another great Hollywood novel I didn’t know, like that Alfred Hayes book you recommended. It’s great that there are so many works in this genre still to discover.

  4. Interesting that it’s written without bitterness on the narrator’s side. I think we empathise more when the character isn’t bitchy or complaining. I hadn’t seen Max’s review and I’m surprised he refers to yours. Is it a reread?

  5. I hate to add to your list of things to read, but your last para reminds me of a memoir by an Australian writer, Craig Sherborne. “Hoi Polloi” is about an only child growing up with parents (“Heels” and “Winks”) who leave a lot to be desired.

  6. I like the sound of this one very much and I see Scott has drawn a comparison with the Alfred Hayes novel on Hollywood. I loved My Face for the World to See; it just seemed to capture the sadness and broken dreams beneath the Hollywood veneer. I’ll have to add the O’Brien to my list.

  7. It says a lot when you’ve read a book three times.
    I wouldn’t have thought of Hayes while reading your review but now that i see the others mention it, I agree, it sounds like there’s something similar.
    I have to keep this one in mind, but still need to read Hayes.

    • This book makes me think how, under certain circumstances, you can choose to interpret events in various ways. This could have easily been a piss-and-moan memoir but it wasn’t.

  8. leroyhunter

    I loved this when I read it – it’s a one-off in so many ways.
    I didn’t know (or have forgotten) about the crime book he wrote.

    I read this and A Meaningful Life at about the same time, and it really launched me into NYRB’s catalogue.

  9. I’m glad Emma asked about my linking to your review. I was surprised when I saw this come up, as I thought surely it was you put me on to this one.

    It’s a superb book isn’t it? It made my 2010 end of year list, and still shines pretty brightly in memory.

    The comparison in the comments with the Hayes’ is really interesting. In a way they’re depicting the same thing, the hollowness of Hollywood and how it eats people up, but one as almost noir, the other as an ultimately really very warm family memoir. As you say, it’s about how you choose to interpret events. The Hayes protagonist interprets through a perspective of cynical anomie, the O’Brien protagonist through a perspective of sympathy and affection.

    • O’ Brien’s narrator realizes and accepts the idea that his fictional parents weren’t perfect people. They were sunk too deeply into their own problems to be able to help him.
      I have to say that I enjoyed the way the Hayes main character thinks he knows all the angles and how to sidestep trouble only to discover that he’s a neophyte when it comes to damaged women. Speaking of damaged women, I read several non -fiction books on Marilyn Monroe and it was truly shocking to read the details of how she was treated like a piece of meat before her stardom–I don’t think it was much better when she hit fame.

      • Oh I loved the Hayes’ too, it also made an end of year list. You’re right that it’s marvellous how the protagonist there thinks he knows the score, yet finds himself so utterly out of his depth.

        Monroe seems to have beem much preyed upon, unfortunately.

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