How Old, How Young by John O’Hara, 1967
The magic trick:
Changing the power dynamics in the gender relations of the story
I remember a long time ago, I was just getting into the music of Elvis Costello. I was trying to sell him to my dad, expressing my admiration for his witty lyrics and sharp melodies and looking for some kind of agreement or positive acknowledgement. I remember my dad saying, “Look, I don’t care how witty he is. I fundamentally don’t care about what he’s trying to say. I don’t have any interest in that kind of attitude or point of view.”
I don’t know why I still remember that. I guess I was disappointed for some reason. It’s a pretty stupid thing to say, given that he was making such a blanket assessment based on probably having heard like two Elvis Costello songs in his life. But whatever.
I share this story because I think I’m about to make a similarly ignorant – though possibly correct – statement about John O’Hara. I just don’t think I really care about what this guy has to say. He seems so angry, so self-righteous, and what’s worse, he seems to be basing this attitude on things that I don’t value – namely money, birthright, class, white man’s entitlements. I’ve read five stories by him. I’m probably not being fair. Still…
The funny thing is I actually really like this story. It’s very, very well-done, and seems to almost play on those themes even as it does, ultimately, tell the story of rich, white people doing rich, white people things.
The story progresses from the male point of view. James sees a damsel in distress and decides that he is love with her. Previously, she seemed out of his league, but now, seeing her as vulnerable, he is attracted to the notion that he is needed.
In a very neat twist, it turns out that Nancy is not needy at all. She is far more sexually advanced than dopey James and is in control of the situation. I’m still not sure I care about any of these people and their superficial values and questionable morals. But at least the story is interesting in its playing with the power dynamics. And that’s quite a trick on Chekhov’s part.
“Do you really want to know?” he said.
She turned and faced him. “Yes.”
“It’s love,” he said.
“Oh, for Jesus sakes,” she said.
“You said you wanted to know and I told you,” he said.
“I certainly didn’t want to know that, “ she said.
“It doesn’t put you under any obligation.”
“I’ll say it doesn’t,” she said.
“I just found out myself last night.”
“Because you saw me blubbering on a public street you came to the conclusion that you loved me. You’d change your mind pretty quickly if you know why I was crying…”
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