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 reciprocate. Both women, significantly, continue to haunt Alfred’s dreams and daydreams: Unable to view matters objectively, he will come to see himself as “bad luck” to other people. It is perhaps hardly surprising, therefore, that even his most selfless act results in a mixed blessing: If the rescue of young Sandy Duffy leads to Alfred’s long tenure with the MacHardie firm, it leads also to the lifelong animosity of Sandy’s father, Creighton Duffy, whose actions will help to force Alfred from his government post. Ironically, when Alfred meets Sandy again as a grown man, the two do not even appear to like each other.
Fearful of his own capacity for love, having by his own reckoning killed two women in the process, Alfred comes to trust only his animal instincts and chooses Mary as his wife. The two have little in common save for sex and ambition. Haunted by the specter of the jilted Dr. Jim Roper, their marriage is severely flawed even before Alfred meets Natalie Benziger. For all of her contradictions, Mary nevertheless remains plausible as a character, at times rather more so than Natalie, whose love for Alfred seems almost too good to be true.
If Alfred’s rise and fall seem plausible to the reader, it is because O’Hara has managed to surround him with generally strong, credible minor characters, particularly those representing the business world. Especially notable in this regard are Percy Hasbrouck, Alfred’s longtime nemesis within the MacHardie firm, and MacHardie’s son-in-law, Creighton Duffy. Closer to caricature, yet still plausible, are MacHardie himself and Lawrence von Elm, an eccentric aeronautical engineer with a strong, shared animosity toward Alfred. Considerably less successful is O’Hara’s portrayal of Tom Rothermel, a compatriot and contemporary of Alfred who becomes a powerful labor leader: Although clearly intended as a major character, his life and career amply prepared throughout the narrative, Tom Rothermel never really comes to life, nor do his actions make sense in the way the author appears to have intended. Extremely close to caricature, yet credible as well as entertaining, is O’Hara’s portrait of Jack Tom Smith, the stereotypical Texas oilman who comes to Alfred’s rescue only to turn against him in the end.
Raymond Alfred Eaton
Raymond Alfred Eaton, a boy who, especially after the death of his older brother, is emotionally...
(The entire section is 1,954 words.)