A Way of Life, Like Any Other (New York Review Books Classics)
by Darcy Obrien
No Humor in Heaven
A review by C. P. Farley
In the late eighties, I spent an evening in a small rural town at the home of a friend. With nothing — at all — going on in the evening, we decided to rent a video. Though the town's lone video store, Video Barn, occupied a former Dairy Queen, we were pleased to find that our selection was not entirely limited to Stallone, Schwarzeneggar, or Streisand. After a quick browse through the store, we found a movie in the Comedy section that we actually wanted to see.
However, when the young woman at the counter saw our choice, Bill Forsyth's film of Marilynne Robinson's beautiful novel, Housekeeping, she hesitated, rolling her gum around her teeth as she decided whether or not to say what was on her mind. She then looked up, and, visibly concerned, informed us, "You know, I saw this. It isn't funny."
Though I wholeheartedly disagree — Housekeeping is very funny — I'd read the book, so I had an idea what she was driving at. Robinson's story is the opposite of a Jim Carrey movie. Her humor is too intermixed with grief, loneliness, and a bittersweet acceptance of human foolishness to be merely comic. As Mark Twain observed, "genuine humor is replete with wisdom." Elsewhere, America's greatest humorist contended that there is no humor in heaven because the "secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow." I'm not sure what Twain's observations suggest about the legitimacy of Jim Carrey, but I take them to mean that humor is promoted from entertainment to art when it is born of a bemused awareness of both the folly and the sadness that underlie all human relations.
Seamus Heaney would likely agree. In his loving introduction to A Way of Life Like Any Other, which has just — and justly — been brought back into print by The New York Review of Books, he claims that James Joyce's description of Flann O'Brien — "That's a real writer, with the true comic spirit" — is equally applicable to this novel's author, Darcy O'Brien. If O'Brien's novel is representative of the "true comic spirit," then comedy is a bittersweet affair indeed.
A Way of Life Like Any Other is a semi-autobiographical account of the author's own childhood. Like O'Brien, the novel's hero is the son of Hollywood movie stars, one a washed up cowboy hero, the other an aging screen beauty. The beginning of our narrator's life is idyllic. The small family is rolling in money, fame, and joie de vivre: "Oh what a world it was! Was there ever so pampered an ass as mine!" But as his parents' careers falter, so do their spirits, and the couple is soon divorced. As their son moves from childhood to adolescence, both parents separately succumb to delusion, desperation, and despair. At the novel's close, our suffocating hero makes a cold escape.
What makes A Way of Life Like Any Other "one of the very best novels to ever come out of [Hollywood]" is that O'Brien infuses his story with such complex emotion. O'Brien tempers biting satire with genuine pathos and makes his selfish characters sympathetic by revealing them as merely human. The father, who never recovers from the breakup of his family, comes off as a charming bumbler, even when he wants to cheat his son out of a small inheritance. And O'Brien's supporting cast includes some of the funniest Hollywood caricatures ever created, rivaled only by those in Nathanael West's classic Day of the Locust. Marshall Marshall, car-selling John Bircher, is a particularly hilarious — and horrifying — moron, and far too believable.
But A Way of Life Like Any Other is not nearly as dark as West's cynical dystopia. O'Brien is far too sympathetic of his characters' suffering, and far too amused by their peccadilloes. His novel is therefore the more human of the two — which is quite a claim. Day of the Locust has been called the "greatest Hollywood novel" for so long the statement has become accepted truth. Fortunately, O'Brien's wise, sad, and truly comic novel is once again available so readers can evaluate for themselves — though some will inevitably fail to find it funny at all.