The Spectator

The Novel That Explains the Moment We’re In

BUtterfield 8 and the fear of a new Depression.

BUtterfield 8, the movie based on John O’Hara’s Depression novel, starred Elizabeth Taylor

It can’t be ignored any more. The fear. You’ve heard it in whispered asides, hesitant, nervous questions and observations like, “I’ve lived through bad recessions, sure, but things always started coming back” and “Do you get the feeling things are getting out of hand?” I keep wondering when they’ll stop saying “double-dip recession,” making it sound like a Baskin-Robbins promotion. I keep wondering when they’ll start saying the dread D-word: Depression.

Oh, the word has been uttered (most saliently last week by Judge Richard Posner). And this week the White House has edged closer, calling it, “this great recession“—a step from the brink. But a fearfulness, almost a taboo, surrounds it. If we have nothing to fear but fear itself, as FDR said of the first Great Depression, we’re beginning to fear the fear of a second. One can’t help but notice people tip-toeing around the fear.

The best way I can explain the feeling is to compare it to those moments when a plane hits heavy weather. Even if you’re a pretty good flier on smooth flights, there’s that moment when your Airbus suddenly drops like a stone. No matter how many times it’s happened before, and however much you tell yourself that stability will be recovered, it’s hard not to avoid the sickening flash panic that this time the drop won’t stop.

The intimations of the irrecoverable have grown more frequent this past month, with the post-downgrade market hitting heavy turbulence, flash crashes on Wall Street, burning and looting on the London streets. Man-made conflagrations hitting like the one-two earthquake/tsunami combination of natural disasters last March, when the world held its breath as the reactors seemed to accelerate toward meltdown. There’s that same sense now of the precarious stability of civilization suddenly sliding out of control.

Are we about to plunge into a second Great Depression? Suddenly, it’s not just a nightmarish fantasy. We may pull out like the Airbus. Or we might find ourselves on a more primitive means of transportation. Cue image of the Joad family on the road in The Grapes of Wrath over a soundtrack of “London Calling.” Or maybe you think the “super committee” will save us.

There’s a book that captures just this preliminary, premonitory, pre-monetary-collapse moment when we just don’t know how bad things can or will get. The strange liminal time when everything’s on edge, up in the air and falling fast.

The book I’m referring to, the one that captures that ominous strange interlude is BUtterfield 8. Many remember this John O’Hara novel as being mainly about sex. But it’s really more about money. Or sex and money—or sex and money and liquor. (It’s set during the last days of Prohibition, when Christian moralists—the Tea Party of their day—had imposed an anti-urban idiocy on us through the 18th Amendment and the Volstead act.)

But more importantly, it’s a book about timing.

Many people who have seen the 1960 film that won Liz Taylor an Oscar but haven’t read the novel don’t realize how radically different the book, published in 1935 and set in 1931, is from the film, set in what looks to be the postwar ‘50s.

The novel captures something that the film, which stars Ms. Taylor’s sexy white slips, utterly discards: the menacing undertone of that end-of-Weimar period worldwide, those two crucial years poised between the Black Monday crash of October 1929 and the middle of 1931, when the novel is set. The months before flickering hopes of recovery were dashed as the worldwide Depression doubled back and sunk us deeper into the black hole of fear itself. We were teetering precariously over the edge of the abyss in 1931, but didn’t know for sure. It’s often forgotten that during that tense period, there were mixed signals, some signs that a recovery was possible.

And then the Smoot-Hawley tariff put the nail in the coffin of the U.S. economy and sent the rest of the world into a death spiral. The short-sighted, selfish, protectionist economics of the Smoot-Hawley Act irrevocably plunged us into the worst Depression in modern history.

Smoot-Hawley was the wrongheaded equivalent of the current Tea Party hysteria over deficits at a time when it makes more sense to put some steam into the economy rather than shrink and mummify it.

People forget that the ‘29 crash itself didn’t ensure the worldwide Depression, didn’t consolidate its death grip until 1932. It took the intervention of the brilliant minds in the U.S. Congress to ensure that. For those few years we lived in a limbo of anxiety and incipient panic, when recovery was possible.

For those readers to whom the specific economic infrastructure of O’Hara’s fearful world in BUtterfield 8 might be unfamiliar, here’s how the U.S. State department website puts it (who says literary criticism leaves out the economic and class considerations underlying great novels?):

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff was more a consequence of the onset of the Great Depression than an initial cause. But while the tariff might not have caused the Depression, it certainly did not make it any better. It provoked a storm of foreign retaliatory measures and came to stand as a symbol of the “beggar-thy-neighbor” policies (policies designed to improve one’s own lot at the expense of that of others) of the 1930s. Such policies contributed to a drastic decline in international trade. For example, U.S. imports from Europe declined from a 1929 high of $1,334 million to just $390 million in 1932, while U.S. exports to Europe fell from $2,341 million in 1929 to $784 million in 1932. Overall, world trade declined by some 66% between 1929 and 1934.

Heckuva job, Hawley. You, too, Smoot. I suspect the debt ceiling “solution” will one day be remembered with similar contempt as Smoot-Hawley redux.

Someday, they will stand together in history’s dock. Two groups of willful men who sold out their fellow citizens with their blind avarice and arrogant stupidity: the greedheads on Wall Street and the empty heads (and hearts) of the Tea Party know-nothings.

O’Hara’s novel captures a world like ours, a world paralyzed and electrified by anxiety over the approach of the final plunge and ruled over by sleazy losers like those.

It was really an accident that I decided to reread BUtterfield 8. I got a Facebook message from a group I didn’t belong to, the John O’Hara Society, inviting me to a walking tour of O’Hara’s New York, starting out in the revered old saloon, Connolly’s.

I resolved that before I took the tour I ought to reread one of O’Hara’s New York books and got the Modern Library edition of BUtterfield 8, which has an introduction by Fran Lebowitz * (who displays her customary incisiveness).

And of course instead of going on the walking tour I ended up staying home, staying up late, and finishing the book.

The book starts off like a house on fire. O’Hara has perfected a technique (useful in evading censorship) that uses implication, imputation, indirection, euphemism, and innuendo to evoke sex and sexuality. We begin with our damaged flapper heroine, Gloria Wandrous, waking up in a strange bed in a luxe Park Avenue apartment with a dress torn down the middle and the owner (and tearer) off to meet his wife and family (back from Hyannisport) at their suburban county club.

Seeing as she has nothing decent to wear, Gloria appropriates the wife’s mink coat and exits the building wearing that and nothing (much) beneath it.

It reminds you at the outset of an R- (or maybe X-) rated version of Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (dare I say, “dirty Trollope”?), but evolves into something more like Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, as we follow Gloria into a demimonde of bohemians, speakeasies, agitated gaiety shot through with denial—an evasive anxiety about living on the lip of the volcano and the impending collapse of any stable values (whether monetary, sexual, or legal). She’s pursued around town (such is the plot) by the dress-ripper, Weston Liggett, a Yale oarsman and out-of-towner who’s just outside the inner circle of blue-blood privilege, a proper member of society who finds himself unable to resist the temptation to undermine its professed propriety in the absence of any universally accepted moral authority—and the irresistible pull of Gloria’s sexuality. In the aftermath of the crash, what’s recently been called erotic capital trumps traditional capital, though neither comes to a good end.

It’s a world where the distinctions between the proper and improper are still known but not necessarily respected and where the establishments with the strictest rules of behavior are the illegal speakeasies run by gangsters, O’Hara captures the bewilderment that the new transgressiveness causes for someone like Liggett—who wants, more than anything, some standards of authority to cling to, the better to validate his position in society.

“O’Hara understood better than any other American writer how class can both reveal and shape character,” Lebowitz writes, “how profound the superficial can be, and how clothes can truly make the man. Fitzgerald usually gets the credit for this but Fitzgerald gives too much credit to cash.”

And, indeed, as the novel staggers like a woozy bathtub-gin drunk from Park Avenue down to bohemian Village haunts and back up to the midtown speakeasy secret palaces, as Liggett seeks Gloria and Gloria seeks to evade the consequences of her sexual allure, we get a Hieronymus Bosch-like pageant of the disrupted strata of dissolute New York society dissolving boundaries of behavior. And beneath it all: the fear.

One of the manifestations of the crumbling of boundaries and standards is not just in sexual licentiousness but in the license in the language, the language of sexual description. In 1935, when O’Hara wrote the novel, “there were things better left unsaid,” Lebowitz writes. (There still are, but today they get said anyway.) “There were unspoken passions and unwritten rules.” She writes about the way the crucial, human element in sexuality is “perception—that which gives human sexuality its affect, that special little twist.” What a great way of putting it, one I’m sure O’Hara would love: that special little twist.

One of the great things about O’Hara is that—in the days when the Hayes Office compelled Hollywood to suppress sexuality on film, leading to a wealth of witty innuendo, when Lady Chatterley’s Lover was suppressed in print—O’Hara was a master of the subtle artfulness of sexual euphemisms. The indirection with which he conveyed those “special little twists” is delectable. You linger over them on the page and think, “is that what’s he’s saying? What, exactly, is he talking about when some gent in a speakeasy marvels, about Gloria, that “an American girl would do that!” What’s that? The fact that one has to search one’s imagination for the various acts that could be encompassed in his shock and awe gives whatever that is a “special little twist” it wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s always going to be something beyond one’s imagination. It was an age in which everyone—including the novelist—was playing at getting around the rules.

I can’t resist noting, because I haven’t seen it mentioned elsewhere, an amazing anticipation of a scene in Lolita that it’s hard to believe Nabokov did not read. In a flashback we see 12-year-old Gloria molested by a “friend of the family.” Perhaps an unnecessary “explanation”—O’Hara gives us the boundary-crossing that condemns her to a life of having her boundaries crossed.

Also, there’s an extended riff—seemingly frivolous, but not really—on why a martini should be shaken and not stirred. One that anticipates Bond, although Bond would be unlikely to go on about the molecular reasons for the desirable, shaking-derived “foaminess” exalted here, a foaminess that stands as a metaphor for the intoxicating insubstantiality of this glittering world of ritzy speakeasy debauchery all built on froth. A world that in 1931’s nervous interim was itself shaken if not stirred.

And then there’s the sudden intrusion—as in Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”—of a deadly seducer: gold.

Gloria’s uncle, who has been a regular player on Wall Street, gets the vibe of the coming plunge and tells her, “I’ve been getting rid of everything I can and do you know what I’ve been doing? Buying gold.”

“Bullion?” she asks.

Yes, he says. “The real article. Coins when I can get them and gold bars and a few gold certificates but I haven’t much faith in them. You know I don’t like to frighten you, but it’s going to be a lot worse before it’s any better.”

No, he doesn’t want to frighten her at all.

Then he tells a long story about a prophetic market trader, “A Jew, naturally.” (I am of the opinion that the racism and anti-Semitism expressed by certain of O’Hara’s characters do not reflect O’Hara’s sentiments but, rather, his novelist’s ear: They are reminders of how recently open expression of such sentiments was not shamed. In O’Hara they are denigrations of the characters who express them, not of their objects.)

In this case, Gloria’s uncle almost seems to have a mystical, worshipful feel for that Jew’s prophetic ability to foretell the collapse: He called the market turn and sold everything in August 1929; moved to France for the “whoopee” (translation: sex); and then set sail around the world with some Follies girls, landed on a South Sea Island, sent the girls home, and established himself as the owner of a copra plantation in order to watch from a distance the decline of the West. He became Conrad.

That was then, the flight into gold like the flock of seabirds trying to outrace a storm. It’s interesting how gold still has the mystical power to ignite end-of-the-world emotions. Shortly after reading that passage in O’Hara, I came upon an eloquent jeremiad, attacking today’s fixation on the supposedly pre-apocalyptic rise in the price of gold. Gold and the end-of-the-world fears it inspires. Art critic Adam Lindemann wrote recently in the New York Observer as he watched gold soar:

I’ve never bought an ounce of the stuff in my life and I hope I never do. The price of gold is a barometer for our collective anxiety and irrational neuroses. I’m referring to global financial meltdown, famine nuclear meltdowns, tsunami, anarchy in the middle east and eventually hyper inflation. But I was already scared and buying gold will only confirm my innermost “end of the world” fears which is the very thing I’m trying to suppress.

The key word here is “scared.” He’s scared of the seductiveness of gold not just to him but to the entire culture. Welcome to Thunderdome.

Frankly, I blame Oliver Stone. He gave a generation of frat-boy financiers an excuse for their moral depredations. “Greed is good” was not meant to be the moral of the story in Wall Street, but Stone and Michael Douglas made that speech such an appealing tour de force—like Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost with “evil, be thou my good”—but with better styling gel. And in the absence of any countervailing ethical values “greed is good” became an excuse, a mantra to bundle mortgages by, and burn down the houses they collateralized.

In O’Hara’s novel, the end of the world for Gloria Wandrous comes when she falls or jumps off the top of a New York-to-Boston steamboat and gets slashed to pieces in the paddlewheel blades. A kind of rebuff to Twain’s innocent sentimentalization of steamboats.

I still can’t decide; I don’t think O’Hara meant us to know whether it was accident or suicide, but she was fated—as a golden girl stand-in for the American dream—for a bad end, a nightmare end. Either way, the end of Gloria, the end of glory, horrid and grisly.

O’Hara is moralist. You think he’s enjoying himself giving you a guided tour of speakeasy hell. While writing in 1935 in what has become Walker Evans’ Dust Bowl hard-core long-haul Depression. But there’s a rage in that bloody ending, a rage at those who made Gloria Wandrous a beautiful loser. (It’s Wandrous as in wan, she makes a point of telling people, not “Wondrous” as in won.) It’s all connected, all the collective financial and sexual bad behavior will come to a bloody end.

How connected are the events of the summer of 2011? How bad an end are we heading for? And who’s to blame? I think this is developing into what will be a major cultural conflict. Consider what Dorothy Rabinowitz, a very sharp mind on the conservative side had to say in a Wall Street Journal column blasting the “looting-bankers defense” as she called it.

She singles out for reproof a remark made by a Labor MP in response to the Tottenham riots and their spread: “Britain was reaping what had been sown: the alienated young had been copying ‘the ethos of looting bankers.’ “

She quotes one more variation: Courtland Milloy in the Washington Post: “From London to Philadelphia, youths erupting over the theft of their future.” He didn’t stop there, calling the looting “the alley version of the Wall Street bum rush and rip off … flash mobs of bankers and mortgage lenders picking pockets, looting businesses, taking over homes …”

You get the picture. He’s not encouraging or defending a culture of thuggery; he’s just saying that it’s emulating or echoing the financial thuggery of those in expensive suits and arguing that it’s hypocritical not to treat the bankers with just as much contempt and condemnation as a street looter.

I have to say, despite Rabinowitz’ eloquent response and my own aversion for blame-shifting, I find myself thinking that one doesn’t have to approve of, or excuse, the rioters in order to condemn the bankers. With no value system except loot, the bankers and their quant enablers tore down more homes and stores and put more families in the street than the looters of London.

John O’Hara knew exactly how responsible the bankers and speculators of his time were for the crash and Depression that followed. He didn’t need John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash, 1929 to instruct him (although I recommend this classic of economic history as a refresher course on the speculators’ culpability—and perhaps a map of the future). O’Hara was writing in 1935, when we began to see the consequences of the crash; he was able to capture the fear of the abyss. Whether or not we escape it at this suspenseful moment in our history, I think we know who’s more to blame.

It’s still worth remembering Woody Guthrie’s line:

“Some will rob you with a six gun, some with a fountain pen.” And some with a collateralized debt obligation.

Correction, Sept. 2, 2011: This article originally misspelled Fran Lebowitz’s name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)