The Old Man and Me
Love You Good, See You Later
The better novelists always seem to know how to make literary capital out of their limitations and incapacities. In writing I Was Dancing, probably his best book and one of the subtlest and most suggestive novels to come out of the Hub since The Bostonians, Edwin O’Connor, prose laureate of the Boston Irish, has done just that. What, by the way, are these limitations? Well, O’Connor cannot do women at all—the youngish wife of I Was Dancing is his usual stick figure paid off in a fine phrase (“fair-haired, fresh-faced with great grey eyes”) and banished from the book within a chapter or so while the men settle to business; his grasp of Boston’s peculiarly ethnocentric social and political patterns is, on the evidence of The Last Hurrah, superficial and melodramatic, especially in relation to the Yankee-Irish cleavage; and the characteristically somber atmosphere of his writing is anything but appropriate to the mode of straight comedy in which many of his admirers insist on pigeonholing practically all his writing. For example if The Last Hurrah—any of it—is “hilarious” then the defenestration of the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear is a laff-riot. On the other hand. Skeffington’s story does perfectly well as sad comedy, although I do believe that actual Boston is not and never was so dim and drear as the prevailing tone and mood of The Last Hurrah make it seem.
In his new book O’Connor transcends his limitations by a process of purification and concentration. The somber atmosphere is refined to a pearly gray (the color of old age); dense social documentation, local color, and anecdotal set pieces are kept to a minimum—you know for sure it’s Boston only because on page 69 Loew’s State Theater is mentioned; the plot, focusing on a fundamental conflict of interest and willing between a father and his grown-up son, is simple and archetypal; and the action completes itself within the space of a single day.
Waltzing Daniel Considine, an aged vaudevillian who had neglected wife and child while he barnstormed around the world, has returned to his son’s house and holed up in the guest room. After a year of torment—Daniel is the complete egotist and has never quite managed to learn the wife’s first name—the son and the wife give the tyrannical old person a checkout date and a booking at the local R. C. old people’s home. Daniel, a born twister, expects to beat the rap by histrionic trickery on the last day of his scheduled stay but the son, an experienced trial lawyer with steady nerves, is not taken in. Then all masks fall. In a prolonged, deadly, powerfully written scene the two men, tied together by blood and instinct yet in fact strangers and opponents, have it out between them. When the father’s cronies, a priest of bottomless pessimism about the condition of the world named Feeley, an old …