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The Missouri Review 27.3 (2004) 212-214

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Two Lives, Loosely Told

A Way of Life, Like Any Other New York Review of Books Classics, 2001, 155 pp., $12.95
Milking the Moon: A Southerner's Story of Life on this Planet by Eugene Walter, as told to Katherine Clark Three Rivers Press, 2001, 295 pp., $14

Both of these eccentric autobiographies are preceded by forewords written by literary superstars who met the authors abroad. George Plimpton met Eugene Walter when they were both in Paris, among the second wave of writers and artists living on a dime in postwar Europe. Seamus Heaney met Darcy O'Brien in Ireland, where O'Brien traveled in the summer as an Irish literary scholar and critic. Heaney describes O'Brien as a "glamour surfer" who [End Page 212] enjoyed and got along easily with just about anyone.

Both books are redolent of their places of origin, although O'Brien's Hollywood is depicted more in mood than in detail. He describes his youth and his experience growing up in Hollywood as the only child of two washed-up, alcoholic "B" movie stars. His father, George O'Brien, was a man of powerful physique and romantic devotion to his flake-head wife; he enjoyed a successful if minor career as a cowboy movie actor. His mother was Marguerite Churchill, who met George when the two were acting in the 1931 film Riders of the Purple Sage. Marguerite continued to act through the '30s in "B" movies such as Speed Devils and Dracula's Daughter. George's last, minor role wasn't until the '50s. Such details are notably absent from this book, since O'Brien's view of his parents is primarily that of an only child dealing with the wrecks that they have both become. George and Marguerite don't seem to identify much with their acting careers, either. Marguerite still imagines herself to be someone of superior taste and opinion, and George views himself less as an actor than a Navy man, recalling his glory days as boxing champion of the Pacific Fleet during World War I.

Darcy tries to satisfy the unending needs of his capricious mother, and when she runs away with Anatol, a horny Russian artist, he lives with them for a while in a small bungalow. Anatol works for Disney in his day job, but his true interests are food, sex and sculpting the statues of Greek gods engaged in creative amours that fill the house. The ever-obliging Darcy finds ways to appreciate even Anatol but must return to his father, whose ship appears to be sinking fast. It is representative of this wonderful little memoir that O'Brien portrays this dynamic trio of parent figures—a toxically whimsical mother, a father who at his nadir is hallucinating and delusional, and a vodka-swilling sex-fiend stepfather—not as abusive or neglectful but as entertaining characters in the broad comedy of his childhood.

Darcy changes his father's mattress and provides him with company and the illusion that he is still "captain." Eventually the lonely has-been actor decides to stop drinking. George, in fact, comes away from the book looking like a gentle hero who gathered his strength for the last act. O'Brien is a rueful comic in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh, writing about a world of innocence, egotism and foolishness gone awry, and reading this book is pure pleasure.

Eugene Walter's Milking the Moon is an equally compelling autobiography, but for different reasons. It covers the entire narrative of Walter's life, starting with a detailed and nostalgic look at the old Mobile of his childhood, which his sometimes overwrought imagination magically transforms into the happiest of all places. From this city of the "salt zone," he traveled to the Arctic Circle to work as an army cryptographer for two years during World War II; later he moved on to New York, Paris and Italy before finally going back to Mobile, where he lived out his last...


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