O'Hara is Best ...

By Frank Wilson

Author John O'Hara was born a century ago in Pottsville . His father was a physician, and O'Hara's upbringing was comfortably middle-class. But Pottsville society in those days - when coal was still king - was almost feudally structured. The wealthy Protestant iron and coal barons lived in mansions higher and higher up along one side of Mahantongo Street. The O'Haras lived more modestly, halfway up the other side.

O'Hara's wish to attend an Ivy League school, preferably Yale, was thwarted by his father's death. O'Hara took a job on the local newspaper, but soon left for New York City.

It cannot be said that he never looked back. It could rather be said that he only looked back. Pottsville - which he renamed Gibbsville in his stories and novels - had given birth to the dreams and, above all, the resentments that fueled his fiction. In that fiction, many of Pottsville 's good citizens recognized themselves or their neighbors, and a good deal of the town's dirty laundry. There may be markers all over Pottsville now, so visitors can take a John O'Hara walk, but during his lifetime, town and townspeople had little time for him.

Critics haven't had much time for him either. Among his contemporaries, that may have been because they knew him. He was, by all accounts, a most unpleasant man: vain, touchy and quarrelsome. He thought he deserved the big prizes, the Nobel as well as the Pulitzer. He did win the National Book Award (for Ten North Frederick).

He made his name as a writer of short stories, mostly for The New Yorker, and his first novel, Appointment in Samarra, which many still consider his best, is really a novella. Fictionally, O'Hara was a natural sprinter, not a marathoner, but he could make himself go the distance and was convinced that fame, fortune and, above all, literary stature could be his only if he wrote novels that ran on for hundreds of pages.

Ten North Frederick, From the Terrace and the like - soap-opera novels combining solid reportage, O'Hara's trademark spot-on dialogue, and sex that seemed risqué in the '50s but looked passé once Tropic of Cancer became legal - pleased the public immensely, becoming blockbuster best-sellers and enabling their author to continue living the life of a country squire in Princeton.

He might have won the prizes and the critical applause had he stuck to what he was best at. He could report, but he couldn't invent, and he had little eye for the telling detail. What he did have was a flawless ear for the way Americans talk and for how much people reveal not just by what they say, but by the precise way they say it. He is at his best when, having set the scene with minimal ado, he lets his characters gossip away.

In 1960, at age 55, O'Hara published a trio of novellas - "The Girl on the Baggage Truck," "Imagine Kissing Pete," and "We're Friends Again" - under the title Sermons and Soda-Water (taken from Byron's Don Juan: "Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, / Sermons and soda-water the day after"). Here, all of O'Hara's literary virtues, and none of his shortcomings, are on display. It is this book, not Appointment in Samarra, by which his work as a whole deserves to be judged.

In "The Girl on the Baggage Truck," Jim Malloy, O'Hara's fictional alter ego, is working for the publicity department of a Hollywood film studio and is squiring one of its stars around New York. The star is involved with a mysterious tycoon who claims to have been born in Gibbsville. The star was also once involved with wealthy aristocrat Junior Williamson, and the pivotal scene in the story takes place at a party on Williamson's estate, to which the star has been invited by Williamson's wife, Polly.

Polly is a cousin of Charley Ellis, who is one of Malloy's best friends, a socialite who has abandoned his ambition to write and joined his father's brokerage firm. Ellis is in love with his cousin, but she is simply fond of him. "We're Friends Again" tells of how Charley's eventual marriage and his friendship with Polly tie in and play out.

Gibbsville figures only peripherally in the first story and not at all in the third, but the second story is set there, making it the centerpiece in more than one sense. Bobbie Hammersmith, the girl all the boys dreamed of, is set to marry a well-bred New Englander, but changes her mind. A few weeks later, she's engaged to Angus "Pete" McCrea, the hometown crowd's all-time dork.

The marriage turns sour fast. Pete's and Bobbie's families go broke in the Depression, and Pete becomes a monster as well as a loser. But the marriage survives, and two children are born. How it survives and why is what the story is about, and in its 112 pages O'Hara writes with a depth, feeling and insight often missing from his outsize potboilers.

O'Hara was much younger than I am when he wrote Sermons and Soda-Water, but his sensibility was already that of someone much older. "A writer belongs to his time," Malloy muses in "We're Friends Again," "and mine is past. In the days or years that remain to me, I shall entertain myself in contemplation of my time and be fascinated by the way things tie up, one with another. "

Critics and scholars might want to pay another visit to O'Hara's Gibbsville. It may not be as mythic as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha, but its proportions are more recognizably human.

Frank Wilson is the former book editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. This article was written in 2005.


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