Book Review

John O'Hara:
A Study of the Short Fiction  
By Robert Saliba

Although this book, whose author is a O'Hara Society pal Steven Goldleaf, is out of print,  my wife, Jenny, obtained a copy for my 70th birthday a few days before the Annual General Meeting in Princeton, where I met the author, the Society's newest member, a Pace University professor, who autographed the book.  
This 135-page book (excluding the other materials at the end) is a gem and belongs in the library of every reader of John O'Hara. My advice is never read a John O'Hara short story without having this book next to you as a reference teaching guide. 

Years ago, when I began reading John O'Hara, I went to the library and tried to find essays and criticisms that could give me a better understanding of the writings. I read a lot of these that were contemporaneous with the books and stories as they were published, and I was very disappointed. In my sixties then, I had enough self confidence (I wouldn't or couldn't have done this as a college student in my twenties) to reject all these critics (I think John O'Hara once said "The hell with the critics"). I got it and they didn't. And I felt the same way even after ploughing through the later essays of John Updike, Fran Liebowitz and Louis Begley. 

This book is different. This author gets it. You can read it in an evening, but you won't get its full impact. 

From the 1920's through the 1960's John O'Hara wrote 383 stories. Professor Goldleaf divides these stories into three separate periods - 1920's and 1930's, 1940's and 1950's, and 1960's (When John O'Hara really produced  - 150 stories and much longer in average length than the earlier ones). It's all there -- Gibbsville, California, New York. 

What I have learned from Professor Goldleaf: There are the stories I've never read. So it's back to basics: Go to the chronology and, beginning with 'The Doctor's Son and other Stories,' get all the books and read all the stories. Then there are the stories I've read but don't remember. So Jenny and I have begun re-reading them again. 

Then there are the stories I've read and remember but didn't fully understand until I read Professor Goldleaf's book. On every page this short book drips with insight after insight after insight. Some of these stories I've read several times but still didn't really get the full impact until Professor Goldleaf, a trained academic with no ax to grind, quietly and analytically, with flawless writing style (he doesn't split infinitives) explains them. 

In Appointment in Samarra, on Julian's last night, when he's all alone, he plays three records. I got these recordings and listened to them, and as a result I've a much deeper grasp, it's a very emotional thing, as to understanding that scene. (I suppose it could be said that my understanding would be enhanced if I poured whiskey into an empty vase and drank from it, and I haven't done that). With this study of the short fiction, it's not music but rigorous intellectual analysis, and the result is the same as with the music. My life is enriched.

Thanks, Steven. 


RGK said...

Very well put!

I am about halfway through Steven's book myself and am finding it fascinating. Of particular interest is the way it follows and explores the evolution in O'Hara's short story writing. Having read many of the stories and collections outside of the order of publication, I had not paid close attention to the changes and advancements in O'Hara's practice of the short story form-- until now.

Of course, as I am now looking to revisit many of the pieces I have read in years past, the book is also proving itself a useful guide to choosing which stories to revisit first (and with a more critical eye).

Anonymous said...

I discovered John Ohara in the post library at Misawa Air Base, Japan, in 1972... He has been my favorite writer ever since...