Thursday, March 04, 2004


During my recent flight from Illinois to California, I passed the time by rereading The Last Hurrah by Edwin O'Connor, a novel which had been one of my favorites as a teen. Published in 1956, it's a sentimental portrait of the allegedly vanishing world of Irish Catholic Boston (the city in which it's set is unnamed, but clearly modeled on Boston), using as its vehicle the mayoral re-election campaign of the boss of the city's corrupt political machine, Frank Skeffington, whom one of his opponents describes as "a rascal with a heart as big as Kansas." While it must be nearly forgotten today--even in the 1970s, when I first read it, I doubt that many other people my age were reading it--in its time, its combination of comedy, sentimentality, and the illusion of giving its reader the inside dope on politics made it both a popular and critical success.

Rereading it for the first time in several years, a detail which had never particularly struck me before caught my eye. Skeffington, attacking his chief opponent, a political novice, alludes to "a book I once read by one of the Irish writers. It was about a man who was born at the age of thirty-five with a full set of teeth." (Chapter 11) And the reason why this detail caught my eye is that it seemed to be an allusion to Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds, one of whose characters is similarly born as an adult. While Skeffington is said to have catholic (with a small c) tastes in reading, it's unlikely that he would have read At Swim-Two-Birds; nor does the book seem at first to have much in common with The Last Hurrah. Now that my attention had been drawn, though, I noticed other moments that seemed O'Brien-esque.* One of Skeffington's many suppliants, begging for money ostensibly to buy medicine but actually for alcohol, says of the putative medicine: "Ah costly's not the word Frank not the word at all. It's dear that's what it is. Terrible dear. And suppose a man only wants a bit of it it's still too damn dear if he's a poor man that is." (Ch. 1; punctuation sic) A brief anecdote describes how a 19th-century mayor of the city was kicked to death by a camel. (Ch. 3) The opponent of Skeffington mentioned above has a mania for the latest "scientific" discoveries, including wearing a Dacron cap at all times.

On a more blackly humorous note, another of Skeffington's foes has a confrontation with an Italian politician named Camaratta, and when it threatens to become physical, defends himself by waving a poker and yelling insults. Camaratta leaves, and "for a few seconds after he had gone, Garvey continued to leap and to brandish his weapon; it was as if he were some elderly, gnomelike, mechanical toy which, once set in motion, could not be stilled until it had run down." A little later, Garvey falls asleep and dreams that he is again holding the poker and Camaratta rushes at him: "now he was within striking distance. Garvey swung the poker, there was a loud squunch; the face of Camaratta disappeared, to be replaced, miraculously and immediately, by that of Skeffington. This too came closer; Garvey, yelling his defiance, swung the poker and hit him again and again and again and again. And on the tough little sleeping countenance, the smile grew ever broader; Festus Garvey was having a lovely dream. . . ." (Ch. 11)

More generally, I realized that, like O'Brien (or James Joyce) O'Connor was fascinated by cliches and banality. The book is a virtual catalogue of cliches: most of the characters use cliches at one time or another, and the real distinction is not between those who use cliches and those who don't, but between those who use them consciously and calculatedly, such as Skeffington (and his nephew, who writes and draws an inane but successful comic strip called "Little Simp"), and those more numerous characters who, without realizing it, speak entirely in cliches.

There are other aspects of the book which are even more incompatible with the overall sentimental tone. Skeffington, describing old Irish Catholic Boston to his nephew, idealizes its inhabitants; but those of its inhabitants we actually see are mainly fools or crooks. And when Skeffington is actually defeated, the first thought of the crowd of supporters at election headquarters who supposedly love him is of their own fate once City Hall's teat is withdrawn. Skeffington himself, for all the talk of his great heart, is quite hard-headed in his political calculations. And while we do see a couple examples of his fabled generosity, he appears to rely more upon his ability to bamboozle different audiences into thinking he shares their concerns, something he does consciously and cold-bloodedly.

This misanthropy extends to humanity in general. Nearly all the characters are either stupid, dishonest, or thoroughly unsympathetic. And the exceptions--Skeffington's apolitical nephew, a liberal reformer, a WASP philanthropist--are completely uninteresting as characters.

I'm not claiming that The Last Hurrah is a neglected masterpiece, though it is a good comic novel: ultimately the prevailing sentimentality overwhelms the "dark side" I've described above. But the cultural criticism and misanthropy are, I'm convinced, real; unlike in Wodehouse, say, where the feather-light tone would make such a reading obviously inappropriate.

*In fact, when I checked a copy of At Swim-Two-Birds, the original parallel I'd noticed wasn't as close as I'd remembered it as being, and it may be that O'Connor had not read O'Brien at all. But my broader point still holds.

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