John O’Hara’s themes are alcoholism, infidelity, rape, perversion, child molestation, the yearning for power and financial security (many who knew the author believed this to be his own basic preoccupation), the instability of love and passion, the effects of economic substructures on the superstructures of private life (in method, if certainly not in ideology, he resembles a Marxist), boardroom and statehouse politics, and the secret corruptions of families.
In many respects he is a cruel writer; not only does he portray quotidian cruelty unblinkingly and intimately, but his portrayals themselves can be cruel. While critics often prefer his short stories to his novels, my preference is the reverse of theirs. For me, a writer’s highest business is the creation of some kind of empathy, and O’Hara’s short stories rarely permit him to do more than cast his contemptuously bloodshot gaze on a situation, evoking revulsion or pity, perhaps, but nothing more.
To be sure, in the stories you will find any number of strange types, such as the sprightly, obese, sexually deviant, not unsympathetic dancer-actor-clown of “The Portly Gentleman,” or the vicious, stupid, smalltime gangsters of “The Sun-Dodgers,” usually encountered at some revealing and decisive moment. A few of these tales—I’m thinking of the bitter brilliance of “It’s Mental Work” or the cheap perversions and double-crosses of “A Phase of Life”—are as effective as the best of Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. Yet it is only in the novels that O’Hara takes a longer look at his strange characters, showing them in the grip of corrosive social crosscurrents.
Like most cynics, O’Hara wishes things were different, and he sometimes conveys extreme compassion for the poor, lost, and lonely. But an O’Hara narrative is typically one of failure. “Of course life is not made up of many good things; at least we don’t make milestones out of the good things as much as we do the bad,” says the narrator of BUtterfield 8 (1935), O’Hara’s second novel. The details vary from one case to another, but it’s always essentially the same trajectory. After reading one or two O’Hara books, we can guess how things will turn out.
Imagine a man in the driver’s seat of whichever automobile best represents his time and class (count on O’Hara to know the model). Imagine that this driver is on a highway, cruising or speeding toward ruin. On either side, in place of billboards, lurid personages appear, and sometimes reappear some miles down the road. Other billboard-like elements are O’Hara’s numerous curious facts and aphorisms: “It is a pretty good hangover when you look at yourself in the mirror and can see nothing above the bridge of your nose”; “Women who like golf and play it well do seem to move more deliberately than, say, women who play good tennis”; “The anthracite region, unlike the bituminous, is a stronghold of union labor.” Then these assertions likewise wink out of the rearview mirror, and the driver continues on toward destruction. Why this doom is inevitable is the big question.
Because O’Hara can bring alive not only his protagonists but also their foils, antagonists, mentors, dependents, and sometimes even those billboard-like minor characters on the road to failure, his protagonists’ failures are complex in both cause and implication. A common O’Haran female type is Caroline in Appointment in Samarra (1934), the most sympathetic character in the novel, but one who runs up against what she lacks: “There was something wrong and incomplete in her relations with all the men she had liked best and loved. . . . Altogether she was contemptuous of the men she had known.”
The punishment of exclusion from a class is but one of many acts of social aggression in O’Hara’s America. Class privilege frequently gets enacted against the lower orders, and many characters are bigots in one way or another. Appointment in Samarra opens (on Christmas morning, after a scene of marital lovemaking) with the wife casting hateful thoughts at the next-door neighbors because Jews “hurt real estate values.” Gloria, the heroine of BUtterfield 8, at one point yells at her mother’s servant: “Goddamn you, you black bitch!”
Privilege also enables oppression within an economic or social class. Ten North Frederick fixes on the codes that sanction this kind of oppression: “Under the unwritten rules of the time, Ben could have beaten and raped his wife with impunity; the screams of violently abused women were heard not only in the poorer districts of the town, where, to be sure, they were heard more frequently.” For O’Hara, there’s no escaping class: “You’re money-conscious because you have it, and I am because I haven’t.” Or as Caroline’s husband Julian says in Appointment in Samarra, “I always think of the ones that really have more money than I’d know what to do with, I think of them as the democratic ones. If you don’t have money you’re not democratic.”
Society, as O’Hara sees it, is poisoned by class relations. To be sure, class is only one cause of life failure. A reader of O’Hara’s books will often find an existential or perhaps Chekhovian isolation presenting itself as the fundamental human situation. At the end of a longish short story (“We’re Friends Again”), the narrator asks, “Why must we make such a thing of loneliness when it is the final condition of us all? And where would love be without it?” But this loneliness is frequently a cause or effect of people’s wickedness, which in turn tends to get expressed sociopolitically.
In a social system of corrupters, exploiters, and worse, there is little reason for someone not to fail—unless he or she is corrupt to the core. I suspect that this trumps existential loneliness as the real reason that O’Hara’s protagonists do not achieve their goals: they are tainted by residual decency.