Something to remember him by

First published in the Times Literary Supplement (May 12, 2017)

John O’Hara
Edited by Charles McGrath
860 pp. Library of America. $40.
978 1 59853 497 9

John O’Hara’s critical reputation peaked in the 1940s when he was a pillar of Harold Ross’s New Yorker and its most prolific contributor of fiction. Lionel Trilling, a critic hard to please, glowingly reviewed one of his best story collections, Pipe Night (1945), on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. “More than anyone now writing,” Trilling said, “O’Hara understands the complex, contradictory, asymmetrical society in which we live.” Trilling situated him in the line of social novelists like Howells and Wharton, James and Proust.

By the time O’Hara died in 1970, that reputation was in shreds, done in by massive, crowd-pleasing novels such as A Rage to Live (1949) and From the Terrace (1958), which had earned him a fortune. At the same time, more than twenty of his books were still in print as mass-market paperbacks. His biographer Geoffrey Wolff called four of the long novels “the tomes” and lumped them into a single chapter, asking himself whether they were worth the time he spent reading them. By 1970 O’Hara, along with J.P. Marquand, was seen as one of the last novelists of manners, a retrograde category at a time when American fiction had grown more inward and personal, more ethnically diverse or self-consciously experimental. Reviewers had turned against him; academic critics simply ignored him and largely still do. As O’Hara himself said on receiving an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1964, “at least some of the liberties that the younger writers enjoy today were paid for by me, in vilification of my work and abuse of my personal character. . . . In the context of present-day writing, I am regarded as obsolescent, and rightly so”. He went on to make the case for his own technique, however conservative it appeared to be.

O’Hara had long since become abrasive and defensive, too evidently hungry for the kind of recognition that had not come his way, from the Nobel Prize to honorary degrees, and for the playthings of the rich, such as a Rolls-Royce. He loved receiving engraved cigarette boxes from his publisher and matchbooks from exclusive clubs to which he did not belong. O’Hara saw himself as a self-made Irish Catholic storming the barricades of Wasp ascendancy. His pugnacious response to real or imagined slights was legendary. Some editors, including Ross, found him difficult to work with, ready to go to war over a comma, but this was the product of a deep-seated artistic integrity, laced with insecurity. A snob who never got over not going to Yale – O’Hara never went to college at all – he was acutely observant not of only of class but of minute gradations of social status and all that came with them. Like his friend and mentor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, he had an outsider’s eye on those who were to the manor born. The rich were very different, he thought, living by impulse, leading fuller but also more self-destructive lives, hemmed in by destructive circumstance, flawed character, and bad choices.

All this is played out most economically in his short fiction. One surprise of Stories is to find the work of O’Hara enshrined in the Library of America. A second surprise of the collection is to realize how good it is and how unjustly neglected. Even before he stopped drinking in 1954, after nearly dying from a perforated ulcer, O’Hara was a prodigious writer. He once claimed that he dashed off his early New Yorker stories in two hours; he rarely revised. There are sixty stories in this 800-page volume, selected by Charles McGrath, the former New Yorker and New York Times Book Review editor who has campaigned to restore O’Hara to the canon, but they represent only a fraction of his output. Another biographer, Matthew Bruccoli, reports that he published 374 stories in his lifetime, 139 of them in his last decade. Unusual for this series, McGrath provides an excellent Editor’s Note – the equivalent of an introduction – making a strong case for O’Hara’s work, along with the customary Chronology – a nutshell biography in itself – and particularly thorough endnotes. The wide selection of stories enables us to chart O’Hara’s changes over the course of some forty years.

O’Hara was born in 1905 in Pottsville, a small city in eastern Pennsylvania, which he famously turned into Gibbsville, a microcosm of American society as a whole. “Gibbsville, a third-class city”, he wrote, “was large enough to have all the grades of poverty and wealth and the many half grades in between.” As “The Doctor’s Son” – the title of an early autobiographical story – he grew up in the professional middle class, but the death of his father in 1925 left his large family with few resources. Instead of going to Yale, he found work as a journalist, but soon began submitting fiction to the magazines as well.

Starting in 1928, O’Hara wrote many satirical sketches for the early, lightweight New Yorker before publishing any short stories he thought worth preserving. The best of these stories, including “Over the River and Through the Wood”, “Bread Alone”, “The King of the Desert”, “Summer’s Day”, “Graven Image”, and “Ellie”, all written in the 1930s and 1940s, undermine the received image of him as a pedestrian realist. Most are brief, no more than four or five printed pages, neutral in tone, filled out with succinct dialogue but with scarcely any exposition, overt emotion, or authorial commentary. This was a lean, hard-boiled manner he had picked up from Hemingway, and from his journalistic experience, something he shared with Hemingway. But O’Hara leavened this straightforward manner with a refined social attention learned from Fitzgerald.

With the exception of “The Doctor’s Son”, these early stories are not only spare, they’re virtually plotless except for a slight but often ominous concluding twist, something between a Joycean epiphany and an O. Henry trick ending. This virtually impels us to read them again to spot where the barely noticed markers were laid down. The twist can be anything from angry remark to a punch thrown. Someone turns the tables, a human connection is made or broken, a forceful gesture or burst of feeling lends meaning to what had seemed little more than an anecdote. Elusive and oblique, such stories puzzled Harold Ross, who once vowed never to publish another O’Hara story he didn’t understand. The author’s friend and ally at the magazine, Wolcott Gibbs, urged him “to recognize the fact that The New Yorker isn’t for clever people”, but O’Hara persisted, writing against the grain. He is often said to have created the distinctive “New Yorker story”, more a finely limned snapshot than an unfolding narrative.

In many cases, their titles are as nondescript as what happens in them. “On His Hands”, “Early Afternoon”, “It Must Have Been Spring”, “A Phase of Life”, “Time to Go”; they give nothing away. The dialogue is threaded with long, curt exchanges without attribution – no “he said” or “she said” – a void in which it’s easy to lose track of who’s speaking. The typical atmosphere is ordinary, even banal, the style so free of metaphor or filigree that it hardly seems a style at all. Referring to the characters, O’Hara repeats their full names, as if keeping them at arm’s length, eschewing intimacy or identification. Behind this impassive front are intimations of a human drama, as in Hemingway but rarely as resonant, though the endings typically reach for significance.

“Over the River and Through the Wood” is a good specimen of O’Hara’s early style. A man of sixty-five, once well off, now merely holding on, joins his granddaughter and two of her friends traveling to the Berkshires to visit his long-estranged daughter, who lives in a grand house he himself once owned. The trip makes it clear, at least to us, that he is barely a supernumerary in his family, blamed for his treatment of his late wife, a man politely tolerated but unloved. Drawn ambiguously to one of his granddaughter’s friends, he comes to her room but she curses him out, calling him “a dirty old man”.

He returned to his room and his chair. Slowly he took a cigarette out of his case, and did not light it. He did everything slowly There was all the time in the world, too much of it, for him. He knew it would be hours before he would begin to hate himself. For a while he would just sit there and plan his own terror.

On first reading this might seem like an unearned rhetorical leap, yet the story is full of small touches that should have prepared us for it, prepared him as well. The story reads like the drastically foreshortened précis of a stark, searching novel; it helps us understand why Trilling compared O’Hara to Kafka.

O’Hara’s indirect, elliptical manner was his great contribution to the short story. Despite its stenographic and auditory realism – O’Hara’s ear for speech rhythms never fails him – it is finally more experimental than realistic, resembling, say, Beckett more than Trollope or Howells. It reminds us how modernism deploys the kind of paring down we find in In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises, and The Great Gatsby, in Virginia Woolf or the late novels of Willa Cather, such as A Lost Lady and The Professor’s House. These writers discard the furniture of description and elaboration of Victorian realism, as Cather announced in her 1922 manifesto “The Novel Démeublé”. O’Hara is the inheritor of these minimizing experiments in his short fiction and the early novels, Appointment in Samarra (1934) and Butterfield 8 (1935). But in his postwar novels he sets them aside; the proliferation of detail made the later work more conventional and far more popular.

When A Rage to Live was reviewed harshly by Brendan Gill in the New Yorker in 1949, O’Hara broke with the magazine and stopped writing stories for over a decade. He returned to the fray in 1960 with a trio of novellas, one of which, “Imagine Kissing Pete”, brought him back to the magazine. This pivotal work, included here, proved a breakthrough that led to an outpouring of short fiction – four collections in the next four years – stories quite different from his work of the 1930s and 40s. “I discovered I could begin again and do it better”, O’Hara said in the preface to one of his late collections. “I had an apparently inexhaustible urge to express an unlimited supply of short story ideas. No writing has ever come more easily to me.” The new stories were sometimes much more like novellas, allowing O’Hara to mediate between the excess of specification of his recent novels and the near-abstraction of his earlier stories, so similar in form, so bleak in outcome, that they can feel monotonous, even oppressive, when read back to back in a large collection such as this one.

The best of the longer stories in this book, including “Mrs. Stratton of Oak Knoll”, “Justice”, “Pat Collins” and “Nautica Jackson” are looser, more eventful, and always anchored in a recognizable time and place. The action is less understated, sometimes even rounded off by a melodramatic turn at the end. Nearly all those mentioned could be summarized as Scenes from a Marriage, all naggingly unhappy unions, their stresses heightened by chronic adultery. A frank treatment of sex had always been central to O’Hara’s fiction, but now he explored how it played out between people over several decades. In “Imagine Kissing Pete”, the mismatched couple, both unfaithful, should never have married in the first place but somehow stay together. “Pat Collins”, perhaps the finest story in the collection, focuses on a wife’s long, passionate affair with her husband’s closest friend and patron; it eventually hollows out the marriage but also wrecks the friendship, founded on her husband’s “need of a man to admire,” and saps his morale. He goes downhill and joins a bar-room fellowship of failures.

It was not Irish charm that made Pat Collins welcome in the brotherhood; it was their sense of kinship with a man who was slipping faster than they were slipping, and who in a manner of speaking was taking someone else’s turn in the downward line, thus postponing by months or years the next man’s ultimate, inevitable arrival at the bottom. . . . They were an odd lot, with little in common except an inability to stand success or the lack of it.

Not only the writing but the mild dénouement could never have come from the earlier O’Hara. One of these failures, an eccentric figure out of Winesburg, Ohio, stakes him to a new business and comes to replace his lost friend.

Unlike the early stories, which usually end with the protagonist pinned or trapped his future bleak, “Pat Collins” and “Imagine Kissing Pete”provide his people with a truce of sorts, if not exactly a happy ending. For “Pete” O’Hara also brought back his surrogate from “The Doctor’s Son”, a writer named Jim Malloy, who has long since left Gibbsville but drops in as an occasional observer, tracking a local couple’s lives over three decades and deftly situating them within a wider social history. This personal outlook, perhaps reflecting the author’s own happier marriage and career, helps make these stories more benign and hopeful. Some of them are cast directly as recollections; the tough-minded Malloy can even turn lyrical, as in “The Journey to Mount Clemens”, where he recalls a sexual encounter at age thirteen with a much older married woman. Hard to distinguish from memoir, these stories brought to mind the late work of Saul Bellow, such as “Something to Remember Me By.” They read like a final reckoning, wistful and autumnal.

O’Hara’s fluency never deserted him. With all his limitations, above all an almost clinical detachment from his characters, his large body of workadds up to a comédie humaine of American life from the 1920s through the 60s. He was a great noticer of status symbols, ingrained social habits, and shifting mores, taking pride in knowing exactly how such things worked. He was as sharp about life in New York and Hollywood as in Gibbsville – showbiz was part of his beat. Though his reputation was eclipsed, his influence, though rarely acknowledged, can be felt in many later fiction writers, particularly those who followed him in the New Yorker. To J. D. Salinger he passed on his unerring sense of voice, the pitch-perfect vernacular he himself picked up from Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon, minus their colorful slang. The more decorous John Cheever, whose stories are fully furnished, took up O’Hara’s cues as a social chronicler. One warm admirer, John Updike, stylistically so different, was greatly indebted to his bold treatment of marriage and adultery. Raymond Carver retraced O’Hara’s steps from an eerie and stark minimalism to a richer embroidery of relationships. Hiding in plain sight, a seeming throwback to a dated tradition, O’Hara’s work sheds light on some missing links of mid-century American fiction, along with the way we lived then.