Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Collected Stories of John O'Hara!


Our book today is The Collected Stories of John O'Hara, edited by Frank MacShane, published in 1984, and possessing both a nifty cover illustration by Jeanne Fisher and perhaps the most misleading title any book has ever had, anywhere, in the entire history of books. In fact, the 36 stories in this volume represent less than one-tenth of what would in truth be the collected stories of John O'Hara. The collected stories of John O'Hara, truly collected, would fill a house, including the bathrooms and any available balconies. We may never know the exact total of stories O'Hara wrote; he probably never knew the total himself. From the time he first figured out how to use a typewriter (not to be confused with when he first learned how to write, much less write well), he shed more or less finished short stories like dandruff.

If that sounds like a sideways denigration of the stories themselves, well, it is. O'Hara wrote much, much more than he should have, and he did it for the wrong reason: he wanted the money (the right reason - though the end result is never any more praiseworthy - is imminent death).

And he got the money - once he realized that there was a great current of money out there, he never for a moment consciously took his hands out of the stream of it. He wrote novels (fourteen? sixteen? and quite a few of them plump), stage plays, screenplays, screenplays of his stage plays and novels, introductions to his own collections and those of other people, speeches, dedications, squibs for the magazines, ponderous reviews ... he wrote almost everything, and he wrote almost constantly. He had mortgages to afford, mistresses to upkeep, and a very large life to sustain, and it was all based on the conversion of words into money.

And if that sounds like a denigration of his artistic integrity, well, it is - partly. Of course good work can be done for money and on deadline; Michelangelo scarcely ever did anything except under both those conditions, nor did Trollope, nor Twain. But artistic integrity works itself into the picture as most unwanted interlopers do: quietly, in the middle of the night. Because if the money is ever the reason you're writing, you've put your artistic integrity in a bottom drawer out of sight, or else sold it on eBay. If you'd have accused O'Hara to his face of sometimes producing bad prose because bad prose would pay, he'd have socked you in the nose - but nevertheless, he sometimes produced bad prose because bad prose would pay.

That decision, that precise decision to subjugate whatever inner fire got you writing in the first place - that decision to subjugate it to the market - is what separates first-tier writers from second-tier writers. John O'Hara made that decision - not always, but regularly - throughout his career, and that's why he's so firmly second tier.

The problem here is the unfair mud that attaches to the whole second-tier concept. There's nothing wrong with being a first-rate craftsman of second-rate stories (the only people who find this unappealing are first-rate craftsmen of first-rate stories, for whom the small step down is too galling to endure, and literary critics, for whom the small step up is too galling to endure); although it virtually guarantees that in a hundred years only librarians and English majors will know O'Hara's name, it in no way lessens the thrill and deep enjoyment so many of his stories will always provide. This is the way with second-tier writers: when you find them, you love them - but you have to find them.



MacShane's Collected Stories of John O'Hara contains work from all the time periods of O'Hara's life, from the really short bits he wrote in the 30s to the really long things he wrote in the 60s. There's a decent-sized but still numerable stable of O'Hara types - amiable losers, hard-souled men, well-realized women - and all those types are here represented in what's very often their best vehicles. No story in the whole collection flat-out disappoints, and several electrify. O'Hara can pull off wonders, even with bits you just know are tossed off, like this little moment (from "The Gentleman in the Tan Suit") when a woman is contemplating her sister's stylish new husband:

Robert turned his head when she let herself in the apartment. He did not stand until he had a look at her. He laughed and showed his teeth. Mary knew him for the kind of young man who would go his dentist regularly just to be able to say (truthfully) that dentists would starve if everybody had teeth like his. His teeth were so good and so obviously good all the way back that there was no suspense in watching them. She wondered if he ever bit Kay.


There's a lot going on in that, even for tossed-off deadline prose. There's a low-key music in the rhythm, something you have to cup a hand around your ear to hear, and that third line turns and twists like a snake. The momentary complacency of mandibular perfection is merrily exploded by that mention of biting, a risque thing in 1935 when the story saw print. The whole thing likewise has a punchy little backward-kick at the very end (all of O'Hara's short stories have this scorpion's tale feature; you come to wait for it).

MacShane points out, in his Introduction, that O'Hara excels at dialogue, and it's true - often ninety percent of a story's entire length will be composed of dialogue, and all of it so natural you won't notice. But O'Hara is strong on place description too, a strength that shows his preceptors but marks his own ways as well, as in this evocation (in 1963's "Ninety Miles Away") of a typical seedy hotel:

The Royal had the smell that went with the unending war against vermin, but it had the fascinatingly unwholesome human traffic of its lobby and elevator and halls. The majority of the male guests were horse-players, including two men who worked in bookmaking establishments. The women were anybody's women, trying not to think of the day when nobody would want them. It was an orderly place; the police had their instructions from the landowners' representatives at district headquarters.


But really MacShane - and everybody else who's commented on it, over the years - is right: O'Hara's main strength as a writer lies in his characters talking to each other. His dialogue cracks with slick intensity, and he's mastered the very Shakespearean ability to get dialogue to do all kinds of work in a scene (this may sound simple, but give it a try before you consign it to the repertoire of childrens' tricks; easy as pie, yes, to get dialogue to be dialogue - not so easy to get it to move furniture around a room, or drive a car, or pour everybody drinks). O'Hara used to say that most of his novels and all of his short stories were born in dialogue, and reading the results, it's easy to believe. In "Exactly Eight Thousand Dollars Exactly" (1960), the entire story is one incredibly tense, bitter scene between two brothers, and the entire scene is them talking back and forth, and it all works incredibly well. In 1964's "The Pig," an orderly lawyer has received a terminal diagnosis and is talking out some of his worst fears about it with his best friend:

"I watched my father die, or rather I watched my mother watching my father die. I could have been watching myself, too. We knew he wasn't going to last long. He had Bright's disease, as they called it then, and he was in the final stages of it. But he hung on and hung on. He'd have a bad night, then a good night, and that lasted for weeks. I was just out of college, living in Waterbury and getting ready to go to law school. But as I say, my father hung on, and I began to notice what it was doing to my mother. I wasn't bright enough or possibly honest enough to notice what it was doing to me, but as the days went by and he stayed alive, my mother got tired of him. That's putting it very coldly, but I think it's an accurate statement of what was happening to her without her knowing it. Almost but not quite saying, 'Good God, if you're going to die, die.'

"And she didn't want to see him suffer," said Mike.

"That's what she told herself, and that's what she always believed. But I don't believe that. She simply exhausted her emotional resources - or he did, by hanging on. And now I'll tell you something else. When my mother was dying, about seven or eight years ago, she hung on. She had heart trouble and she was condemned. There was no chance that she would ever come downstairs again. And that was when I began to understand what she'd felt about my father. Because I was secretly saying, 'Mother, if you're going to die, die.'"

Every other way to convey all that same information in a story is a worse way (although that "and now I'll tell you something else" creaks just a bit), including the droning exposition that would be the only choice for a short story writer working today (again, the Munro Doctrine), and O'Hara deserves all the credit he gets for seeing that and rising to the challenge.

He always thought he deserved more credit than he got (this was a widespread affliction in the Age of Hemingway), and that feeling was never sharper or more painful than when, after a long hiatus from publishing novels, he wrote A Rage to Live and the powers that be at The New Yorker (where O'Hara had published some 15,000 short stories over the years) unleashed their attack-Pomeranian Brendan Gill to piddle all over it. Gill's wildly condescending portrait of O'Hara in Here at the New Yorker (a thoroughly delightful book, only one-fifteenth of which should be believed) and his review of A Rage to Live are bookends of a type, and they may have done more to set aside the immediacy of John O'Hara than anything else written in the 20th century. They created a caricature of O'Hara as a jowly Gatsby, yearning for swank and glamor but destined for lower things. And it's unlikely that his short stories and novels, full as they are of jowly Gatsbys yearning for swank and glamor but destined for lower things, will dislodge that caricature.


And if that sounds like I in large part agree with Gill's waspish view of John O'Hara, it's because I do - although not with the malice behind it. O'Hara had a bulldog productivity and an immense amount of courage (neither of those things could be said of Brendan Gill, for instance, or of most of the critics who've had their way with O'Hara's reputation over the years), and he had undiluted an Irishman's gift for knowing what makes a story and producing it, pitch-perfect dialogue and all. He left behind a huge body of work, almost all of it dating as steadily as last year's dance craze, and he is not a mystery: we know right now the full extent of his contribution to the field of literature.

But that field is composed of more than the F. Scott Fitzgeralds and the Ernest Hemingways. John O'Hara wanted literary fame, and he got it. He wanted a comfortable living, earned by his pen, and he got it. He wanted entree to all the best parties, and he got it. And he wanted to be deserving of literary immortality - but you can't type your way into that. As the poet says, they also serve who only stand and wait - and are William Dean Howells.

In the meantime, Frank MacShane's The Collected Stories of John O'Hara will please you very much.

48 comments:

Sam said...

Great post.
I think "Appointment at Samarra" will survive a good long time, but you're right that the stories aren't popular any longer (and almost never included in best-of-the-20th-century compilations). But I like a lot of them a good deal too.

steve said...

Glad O'Hara has at least one other fan out there - since I'm pretty sure MacShane is dead, or doesn't read this blog (which amounts to the same thing)

Mosjka said...

I like O'Hara's story "On time"

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