In attempting to account for the life and career of a distinguished failure, O’Hara faced a formidable challenge: In order to interest the reader in such a man as Alfred Eaton, he had first to make the character appealing; at the same time, he would also prepare Alfred’s fate in such a way that it did not seem implausible. Were Alfred as thoroughly disagreeable as some of his fellow characters appear to find him, it is unlikely that any reader would care enough to follow his adventures over eight hundred pages; on the other hand, what happens to Alfred must nevertheless be seen as the credible result of his accumulated actions. To O’Hara’s considerable credit, the character of Alfred Eaton emerges as both plausible and generally admirable, frequently deserving of the reader’s understanding; his fatal flaw, as one character observes, is that he is “an attractive man with an unattractive outlook on people.”
Alfred’s general distrust of his fellow mortals is amply accounted for by the unenviable accident of birth order; having learned to distrust his father, unprepared for the attention suddenly showered upon him by outsiders after his elder brother’s death, Alfred soon comes to distrust even himself. Aware of his truculent nature, he will nevertheless assume the responsibility for Victoria Dockwiler’s early death, following a quarrel during which he specifically forbade her to ride in the borrowed Stutz Bearcat; he will also blame himself for the short, unhappy amatory life of Norma Budd, whose troubled love he was, in fact, too young to...
(The entire section is 641 words.)