In the literary hallway the footsteps of John O’Hara have faded to less than an echo. I have my theories as to why that is the case, but I’d like to explore the verdicts in three distinct prefaces to O’Hara works. Frank MacShane, who also edited Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, offered his estimation of O’Hara’s short stories. John Updike, the very WASP that O’Hara disliked and pilloried, wrote a preface to O’Hara’s bestselling novel, Appointment in Samarra. Last but not least, Fran Leibowitz offered wit and swift dissection in her few pages before the text of BUtterfield 8.
I read somewhere once that, amongst writers, John O’Hara was the equivalent of James Cagney trying to imitate Cary Grant. It’s a slanted, but workable, comparison, if not for the fact that O’Hara, unlike the two actors who had come from hardscrabble youths, had the silver spoon and the slippers until his father’s untimely death. His father, a physician, and their relationship were immortalized in the short story, “The Doctor’s Son.” That his father died intestate is a cautionary note to parents to have Will & Testament drawn up and notarized. O’Hara went from polite society and white gloves to dirt and dust in the blink of an eye, but not without losing the lump of Pennsylvania coal on his shoulder. O’Hara resented that he was overlooked for the Nobel Prize in Literature, that he was not admitted to the Yale Club, although he did mellow out some in his later years, but not without leaving some serious scorched earth in his wake. It is undeniable, O’Hara, much like the late Mavis Gallant, was a prolific contributor to The New Yorker. The comparison is not hyperbole. O’Hara had over 200 short stories appear in The New Yorker. At the end of the day, hat on the rack, O’Hara had 400 short stories scattered throughout 11 short- story collections, three novellas, and 15 novels. No slacker there. The problem – the O’Hara conundrum – was O’Hara himself. He was the difficult writer in residence, and I suspect that it altered his posthumous reputation. The man was a synonym for SOB.
“Wukkan I do fya?” is a line Frank McShane quotes as an example of O’Hara’s ear for dialog. Dialect aside and the current prohibition to use it, McShane places O’Hara within the pantheon of storytellers of the oral tradition. He doesn’t mean Homer or Twain. What McShane shines the light on is O’Hara’s ability to capture linguistic revelation through vernacular speech: class, style, and conflict. No doubt that there is the uncomfortable hint of the voyeur, the eavesdropper at the bar counter and the sociologist all rolled into the one person of John O’Hara, but he, like the late George V. Higgins, had an uncanny ear for capturing speech of the lower class and middle-class aspirants to the better life. O’Hara should know, because he was one of the bourgeoisie who fell from grace. McShane describes O’Hara’s approach to writing as, for lack of better words, imagining the scene from behind the typewriter’s roll: starting with a face and then hearing the conversation flow. O’Hara was famous for sitting down and cranking out a story during the lunch hour. O’Hara could have written any of the scenes in Mad Men because he understood the civility above and below the line of social propriety. William James and Tennessee Williams come to mind. O’Hara can calibrate the register of speech. In a few cut-and-polished phrases John O’Hara created real characters. More to his credit, he, for a man of his generation, imbues women with all kinds of appetites. I think that this is neglected. He wrote about sex in candid but pointed terms. Read McShane’s forward and then decide whether or not O’Hara was prescient about his critique of the so-called American Dream.
“An Irishman’s revenge on Protestants who had snubbed him” is how John Updike characterized O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, considered O’Hara’s masterpiece. While Fran Leibowitz compares O’Hara to Fitzgerald, I do think that Appointment gnaws at the gritty underbelly to Gatsby that would have come to the fore had Fitzgerald described it in less romantic terms. Jay Gatsby’s fate is tied to an automobile and the same can be said to numerous characters in O’Hara’s novel. The automobile is ubiquitous and symbolizes the capricious, almost Darwinian selection of success and failure in American life. O’Hara sat at the bar and drew a bead on the tab. Updike writes from the position of O’Hara’s better, and he knew that O’Hara was writing against him.
BUtterfield 8 – the camel-case title references retired telephone exchanges – is O’Hara’s ‘ripped from the headlines’ novel. A real murder inspired the novel. Elizabeth Taylor as Gloria Wandrous earned her her first Oscar in 1960 for the 1935 novel adapted to the big screen. The novel is provocative: it details up-town and downtown adultery with cross-town machinations. Fate hinges on a telephone number and a mink coat. The novel uses the word ‘slut,’ which should remind readers that their grandparent’s era was not so innocent or halcyon.
Fran Leibowitz presents some cultural signposts in her preface to BUtterfield 8. 1935 America roiled in the grinding despair of the Depression, but the one factoid that I think is crucial to understanding O’Hara’s novel is the 13 years of Prohibition, which ended in 1933. Leibowitz sees Prohibition as “oddly democratizing” on sexual mores. O’Hara, in a word, applied the stethoscope to America’s “animal impulse(s).” The opening scene is a girl waking up in a married man’s apartment. Leibowitz dispatches her verdict and mentions that O’Hara was all of twenty-nine when he wrote the book. Her phrase that had troubled me at first until I digested her concluding paragraphs is her valedictory tone in, “I was about thirteen years old the first time I read it, which was around 1964. Understandably, I did not, at the time, think of it as a young man’s book. Now, alas, I do.” She would realize, with time and experience, the nuance between knowing and knowledge.
O’Hara might be, to some readers, a time capsule of Americana, but – and I say, but – the overhead conversations, the heated resentment between schlep and boss, no matter how wrong or misunderstood, are still alive. John O’Hara died in Princeton, bellicose to the end. The Nobel Prize was never to be his. He had striven to present the elevated and universal condition, a seeming prerequisite of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and had believed that he had done just that. The Committee might not have seen that, but there is no denying that he did capture the pulse of privileged and not so privileged America.