ON JOHN O’HARA: the incredible pace of a modern master
ON JOHN O’HARA: the incredible pace of a modern master
JOHN O’HARA achieved, sometime in the 1950s, the special status of the writer who gets everything he writes published. No editor alters or cuts his work; no publisher, apparently, refuses any of it. What his readers have been getting, these last few years, is all the work O’Hara turns out, and it amounts to an astonishing pile. From the Terrace, his longest novel, was published in the fall of 1958, and since then there have been eight more books over five years — three normal-length novels, a book of three short novels, a book of five plays, and three thick collections of stories. The latest book of stories, The Hat on the Bed, has just appeared, and the stream shows no sign of drying up. O’Hara is probably the most productive serious writer now working in the English language, and he is also one of the most interesting. Readers who have followed him through these years (sometimes in defiance of reviewers, who discover every year or so that O’Hara has lost his touch) have found themselves involved in a fascinating experience.
EVEN HIS FAILURES FASCINATE
In quality, the books of recent years are uneven. Ourselves to Know, a story about a man who murders his much younger wife for infidelity, is inferior to From the Terrace, a grand and terrible story of a rich man’s loss of will and spirit. Elizabeth Appleton, a portrait of the desperately ambitious wife of a would-be college president, tends to be overstuffed — it tells too much for its own good, and by the end the subject is explained away. The Big Laugh, his second attempt at a Hollywood novel, is even less successful than the first, Hope of Heaven, which he wrote more than twenty years ago.
But if O’Hara has reached the stage at which everything of his is published, then he has also reached the point at which his faults are as interesting as his virtues. When he fails, he fails within a context he has created for himself, in a way that he has made his own; as a result the spectacle of his failure is fascinating, at least to confirmed O’Hara readers. (My own attitude to his work, incidentally, is and always has been just a shade this side of outright addiction.)
We learn with pleasure what O’Hara cannot do, as well as what he can — he can’t, for instance, tell us anything much that is new and impressive about Hollywood society. The technique and imagination which work so well on the small-city life of Pennsylvania become comparatively useless (even if the material is still entertaining) when he shifts them to Hollywood. My guess is that this is not only because his Hollywood experience is more limited but also because Hollywood is too much a place of transients to develop that close-textured tradition which O’Hara, like a nineteenthcentury novelist, finds necessary to his work. In Pottsville, Pa., where he grew up, O'Hara
discovered the basic materials of his fiction. He learned, as a doctor’s son, the social map of the town and the state around it: who respected whom, who feared whom, who made love to whom. He discovered that the people of the town based their lives not on some abstract principle or on private emotion but on their complex sense of each other. They were all locked within this sense, as in a cage. They were bound by social position, personal history, and the intimate knowledge of each other's sins and virtues. O'Hara discovered that these people respected each other not only for personal merit and financial power but for the correct handling of a thousand little details of speech, dress, and taste in possessions.
Within this complexity, the people of Pottsville were confined, and it mattered not at all whether they had money, brains or charm: they could not escape. It became O'Hara's special ability to show how the individual human spirit performs within this cage of social complexity. His characters Julian English (Appointment in Somarra), Grace Tate (A Rage to Live), Joe Chapin (Ten North Frederick) and Alfred Eaton (From the Terrace) all work out their own tragic lives within this context. Pottsville, which in his fiction became Gibbsville, where the citizens believed “the town was the richest per capita of all thirdclass cities east of the Mississippi,” gave O’Hara’s fiction that firm sense of place and social texture which realistic fiction needs above everything else.
No one knows this better than O’Hara, of course, and perhaps this is why he often goes out of his way to tell his practiced readers that all his people live in the same social world. It is a rare O’Hara book which lacks some subtle reference to other O’Hara books. In one of the stories in The Hat on the Bed we meet a young man who is about to plunge into a calamitous second marriage; his name is Arthur Chapin, and of course he turns out to be a cousin of the central figure in Ten North Frederick. In another, a nurse tells a young man about the tragedy of her family life; the young man turns out to be Gerald Higgins, who was the friend of the murderer, Robert
O’HARA AT WORK: IN FIVE YEARS — EIGHT BIG BOOKS
Millhouser, in Ourselves to Know; in their conversation they briefly refer to Millhouser. O'Hara is reminding us, again, that these people are part of a much larger world. The implication seems to be that he has thousands of stories to tell, and will get to all of them.
THE NOVELIST AS A SEXUAL PURITAN
It’s curious that O'Hara's books have often been publicly resented by the sort of person who worries about sex in recent fiction; for some unfathomable reason this reaction turns up especially often in Canada (once he was denounced in Parliament for Ten North Frederick). This is strange because O'Hara has a Puritan view of sex. For him it is never casual, as it is for so many writers and so many people. In the novels of O'Hara, sex is a climax rather than an afterthought, the direct result of the protagonist’s personality. And, more important, it has serious consequences. A love affair in a character’s adolescence may come back to haunt her twenty years later; a brief infidelity will go unforgiven for most of a lifetime; a young woman’s promiscuity will result in her murder, or the destruction of her husband’s dreams, or merely a festering hatred. This concentration on sex as a kind of basis for morality is, it seems to me, a profoundly Puritan attitude. It seems to fit exactly with that intense social conservatism which O’Hara has demonstrated in recent years.
O’Hara’s stories reflect his own age and disposition, of course, and I imagine a good many of his readers share my own feeling that I am living his own life with him. When he was a young man, in the 1930s, he wrote about his own youth, about his friends’ college years, and about newspapermen, gamblers, showgirls and musicians he met in New York. But now his characters have grown older, like O'Hara, and we are often given their memories, their distilled wisdom, their increasing sentimentality about love. We see them in declining health, in widowhood, in grandparenthood. Sermons and Soda-water, the book of three short novels, was full of this sense of age, and so are Assembly and The Cape Cod Lighter and now The Hat on the Bed, his collections of short
fiction. The newest collection, following as it docs his comparatively weak Elizabeth Appleton, suggests once again that his best work by far, these years, is in the short story and the short novel. The Hat on the Bed contains one long story about a Pennsylvania newspaperman that seems to me as fresh as anything of his in the last twenty years, and it contains as well perhaps a dozen really first-class short stories. It presents us, once again, with the spectacle of an artist and craftsman performing his art and his craft superbly.
THE HAT ON THE BED, A Collection of 24 New Stories, by John O’Hara, Random House, 405 pages, $5.95.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.