What a breath of fresh air this story must have been in 1930.
At first O'Hara walks a precarious line with other prohibition ‘Mobster' clichés—"now you see here, see…", but this flirtation with mobster tales turns out to be a pretence (and, might I add, a relatively inconsequential one) that quickly fades into a deft portrayal of the ‘haves' and ‘have-nots' in a small Pennsylvania town. We are shown the inner workings of a social machinery churning out relationships as efficiently and with equal force as the apparatus mining coal beneath the hills.
While O'Hara takes great pains to write the story from multiple first-person angles, he lingers on a couple—Julian and Caroline English—the ‘it' couple, so it would be, of Gibbsville (population 25,000)—where $50,000 (~$600K in today's dollars) is the ticket to entry to the country club. However, as characters like Harry Reilly learn the hard way, no amount of money will provide an entry into the inner circle—only provenance will do the trick, and Julian English has it in spades. Julian also has looks, charm and respect. What Julian lacks is Money…and a wanton abandon for everyone around him—even those he loves. O'Hara takes the reader by the hand through a destructive weekend in Julian's life where, among other acts, he ‘takes a walk' with the mob boss's girl—in front of his wife, punches clubmates (including a one-armed ‘friend'), throws a highball in his boss's faces, and rarely experiences sobriety.
Another major theme in the book, one that is widely understood today, is that of the ‘butterfly' effect. We are shown in detail how a small action can have wide-spread and persistent effects on those affected. We learn through the story that Julian's dad hated his father for not paying his debts—in effect stealing—and when Julian steals as a child, he is forever labeled as a thief. Julian, as a result, is emotionally distant from a cold father and treats people with disrespect at every opportunity. Even his wife, who he loves, is thrown at the waste-side many times throughout the story. Julian is truly incapable of placing others above himself, and he quickly realizes that at 30, he can't rely on the conquest of woman as a basis for his self worth. He feels trapped with the woman he loves, in a town that is eager to pay him much more respect than he pays himself.
The final showdown, appropriately placed during Christmas weekend, pits Julian's silver spoon against his own destructive impulses. In the end the impulses win the day, but O'Hara dispassionately shows us that it was a good fight.
O'Hara demonstrates that karma can be both a bitch and a savior.
A few of my favorite passages:
"Miss Holman will begin to think she is Mistinguett…What?…French entertainer. Yes, if your job is to keep an eye on her, you better be where she can see you so she will not forget herself. It's Christmas, my friend. She may give something away."
The word ‘inveigled', a cross of invited and finagled.
"I always think of the ones that really have more money than I'd know what to do with, I think of them as the democratic ones. If you don't have money you're not democratic. You don't have to be democratic. You just act natural and nobody ever thinks of it as democratic or anything else"
"Somebody was asking him why he was always so polite to everybody. He is the politest man in the world, I guess, and he said, ‘Well, when you've been heavyweight champion of the world, gentlemen, you can afford to be polite."
"…If I don't want to do anything it's buy a drink. You know why? You want to know why I feel that way? Sure. Well it's like love, Al, said Julian…You buy a drink, and that's all it is, just bought a drink. Whereas, on the other hand, au contraire…somebody gives you a drink and that's like love…"
"Julian believed in a thought process that if you think against a thing in advance, if you anticipate it—whether it's the fear that you're going to cut yourself when you shave, or lose your wife to another man—you've licked it. It can't happen, because things like that are known only by God. Any future thing is known only to God; and if you have a super-premonition about a thing, it'll be wrong, because God is God, and is not giving away one of His major powers to Julian McHenry English."
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