I picked up John O’Hara’s BUtterfield 8 from the free “library” at my therapist’s waiting room. Other potential selections were a series of books for teens with playful puns on classic titles like Bratfest at Tiffany’s or Invasion of the Boy Snatchers, a baseball book by Bill Simmons (he prefers the Boston team), and Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. Certain I would not enjoy a single moment of reading either of the first two and having some concern that a dissection of the novel might conflict with my current interest in summer fun times, I opted for this well-worn, unknown-to-me Penguin Classic. My thoughts? It’s pretty good!
From various Internet voices, I gathered that a good many people consider this book to be a definitive document of life in the Great Depression in New York City. Having not researched the subject much myself, I say, “Sounds good to me.” It depicts a city still recovering from the chaos of Prohibition (All the men drink highballs, I’m assuming because post-Prohibition whiskey was bad and watering it down was the best way to tolerably get a buzz. Depressing.), one where even the upper crust of society has suffered damage to their economic stability, and those in the lowest rung (mixing metaphors probably) are forced to commodify every part of their lives just to survive—sex work, a precursor to the gig economy. Though, it’s not the shaming, moral fable I expected. Yes, the protagonist Gloria Wandrous’s sexual history and proclivities are a particular point of interest to the story, and of course she ultimately dies in a freak accident while pursuing the affections of a married man, but overall I’d say the story is sympathetic to her plight. The shocking revelation at the end is that Gloria’s family is well-to-do, and she wasn’t really forced into sex work; she just wanted to do it. Also, she is a virulent racist. Lots going on.
The back cover describes the book as both a “masterpiece” and a “bestseller” in the first sentence—a little desperate to my tastes—but it also makes reference to its movie adaptation: “an Oscar-winning film starring Elizabeth Taylor.” I like movies, so I sought this thing out. After thirty minutes, I was sure I had gotten the gist. Its morals are simplistic, with Gloria’s sex life even more directly tied to her eventual downfall. Elizabeth Taylor was a reasonable choice for the role of Gloria, I guess. However, her then-husband Eddie Fisher (in one of his only two movie acting roles) playing the character Steve, known to book readers as Eddie (Why this change?), is a vacuum of charisma, and somehow the co-lead Laurence Harvey is even worse. He speaks with a deep voice, and as another character politely informs the audience, he is a heel. That’s his character. Also, the film is set in present day 1960 and shot in blinding Metrocolor—odd choices in retrospect. Would not recommend.
The Penguin Classics imprint does seem to ensure some measure of quality, whether you’re a fan of Victorian literature, poetry, philosophy, mythology, early contemporary fiction, or Morrissey. (Inexplicably, Morrissey’s Autobiography is a Penguin Classic.) On Amazon, you can purchase a new hardcover edition of this book for $17.31 and a used paperback for as cheap as $4.48—a steal at a free library either way. Other Penguin Classics are similarly priced, even Autobiography by the fascism-adjacent Morrissey which, I remind you, is a legitimate Penguin Classic. These books are best enjoyed in whole, not parsed out in bits and spurts while avoiding eye contact with those sitting across from you, hypothetically, in your therapist’s waiting room. The books are free after all, so take them. But then bring them back or drop them off elsewhere because you probably have enough books, and in the process of de-cluttering an office, only old bills and unread literary journals will beat them to the recycling. —Dusty Freund