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Surpirsingly Fresh After 70 Years
le 15 juillet 2004
Sparked by the mysterious real life drowning in 1931 of a young New York woman who was later revealed to be a bit of a good time girl as well as victim of childhood sexual abuse, O'Hara's second novel remains remarkably fresh and readable, with surprising sensibilities for the time toward topics such as pedophilia and alcoholism. Of course, alcoholism is something O'Hara had first-hand experience with. A contemporary of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and an intimate of Dorothy Parker, he was a renown nasty drunk, with a penchant for three day benders. This experience serves him well in this study of Gloria Wandrous, a pretty, promiscuous woman who spends a good part of her young life trying to drink her demons away in Manhattan's Prohibition-era speakeasies. Her demons stem from being sexually abused as a child, a trauma that led to her sexual promiscuity when she is more mature (interestingly, recent studies have revealed a significant correlation between sexual abuse as a child and promiscuity later in life).
Gloria is what used to be called "damaged goods"óunderneath her brittle shell and drunken pain, she is smart, kind and caring. Despite these fine qualities, she's emotionally unequipped to deal with true love and tries to run away from it, as she does from everything else. On the first page we learn that she will meet an unhappy ending, and then the story begins with Gloria waking in the apartment of her latest one-night stand and walking out with the man's wife's fur coat. This spur of the moment decision has a series of repercussions, which play out over the next few days as a whole slew of characters intersect and the threads of the simple plot are brought together. The book's main flaw is that there are far to many of these characters coming and going throughout the pages, and one needs a scorecard to keep track. This may have been a result of his playing to his strengths, which were a keen eye and the ability to quickly capture a person in a few lines. Much of this skill is directed in a strident satire of the upper classes (which he had a strange envy/hate relationship). A good deal of effort is expended in portraying their lives as either endlessly trivial or monstrously prurient. And it is significant that it is eminently respectable men who abuse Gloria in her youth.
This is not a cautionary tale of a young woman corrupted by the big city, but a lament for the effects of a monstrous crime perpetrated against a child. The style is very simple and direct, which is perhaps why it remains fresh and contemporary. It is remarkably frank about sexual matters considering it was written seventy years ago by a mainstream popular writeróbeyond the simple promiscuity, group and public sex acts are described. It's not the most fascinating book, but it can definitely be recommended to those with an interest in New York City, Prohibition, or sexual abuse. There is a fair amount of ambiguity in some of the episodes, and most especially in the ending, so those who need clean resolutions are hereby warned.