The Novel That Explains the Moment We're In
BUtterfield 8 and the fear of a new Depression.
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.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Still from BUtterfield 8 courtesy © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. All rights reserved.