John O’Hara: Four Novels of the 1930s

Times Literary Supplement (London) April 16, 2019
John O’Hara: Fours Novels of the 1930s, edited by Steven Goldleaf.
665pp. Library of America $40
ISBN 978-1-59853-600-3

“My antecedents”, John O’Hara (1905-70) wrote in an autobiographical sketch, “were practically all Irish except for a few drops of English and German that it is too late for me to do anything about.”  Such was the tone of most of O’Hara’s extra-literary utterance. Touchy and truculent, he feuded and fought with gossip columnists, magazine editors, saloon keepers and others in New York. Ernest Hemingway got into a rumpus with him in a Third Avenue Irish bar, and broke O’Hara’s blackthorn walking stick over his own head, but their friendship persisted, one of the few that did. There are several versions of the story, and the details of what Hemingway and O’Hara said to each other when it happened in early 1944 differ somewhat, but sources agree that Hemingway did indeed break it over his own head in an effort to indicate, one, that it was not a real blackthorn and, two, that he had the strength to do it. Among those present in the bar, Tim Costello’s, were John Steinbeck and his wife. I saw the stick myself in 1990 when James Jones’s widow Gloria took me to Tim Costello’s for a drink.) In Hollywood, O’Hara scrapped with script writers and actors. While he was burning a bridge a month in the 1930s, he was also amassing the details of every social class in America. In 1951 he announced in his cocksure way, “I probably know this country, the whole of it, as well as any man alive”.  

O’Hara was sometimes identified, inaccurately, as a social historian of the wealthy classes. He wore tailored English clothes, drove both an MG and a Rolls-Royce, and listed Who’s Who and The Social Register as his favourite reading. He came from a well-off family, rode horses, and gone to dancing school as a teenager, but the O’Haras fell into penury after the death of his father, a doctor who owned a 160-acre farm. The eldest of eight children, John had planned to go to Yale, but instead found his place as a reporter and night shift re-write man on newspapers and magazines – from the Pottsville Journal in his home town in Pennsylvania, to Time, the Herald Tribune, and Daily Mirror in New York. In 1928, he began writing for the New Yorker, and over a long relationship published over 400 pieces (fiction and nonfiction) in the magazine, more than any other writer.  In Manhattan he was soon frequenting the posh 21 Club. According to one acquaintance, O’Hara could “remember complete trivial conversations through the smoke and noise and babble of the bars and night clubs in which he chooses to spend most of his life”. He had, as his best biographer, Geoffrey Wolff states, “a feral appetite to know things, especially secrets”. 

O’Hara’s social range is demonstrated in his first four (and, arguably, three of his best) novels, edited by Steven Goldleaf and published by the Library of America as a companion to a collection of sixty of his short stories (reviewed in the TLS of May 17, 2017): Appointment in Samarra (1934); Butterfield 8 (1935); Hope of Heaven (1938), and Pal Joey (1940). The volume contains detailed endnotes and an exemplary twenty-page life chronology that details O’Hara’s Irish roots, his literary friendships, and his forty-year association with the New Yorker. All four novels take place beneath the overhang of the Depression and can be said to be the last gasp of the effort to present in almost documentary detail the inner lives and outward circumstances of Americans between the wars, in the work of the four great realists of the period: Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald. If Fitzgerald’s novels and stories offer the sharpest depictions of the US in the years before the Great Crash of 1929, O’Hara’s do the same for the decade after it. The two writers share a preoccupation with class, wealth and romantic love; an awareness of the powerful but occluded clash between East and West in American culture; mastery of scenic presentation and vernacular dialogue; and the graceful deployment of the characters’ backstories. The two men met in Hollywood when O’Hara was working there in the early 1930s. Fitzgerald asked him to comment on the galleys of Tender Is the Night (1936), and O’Hara attempted, unsuccessfully, to get Clark Gable to star in his adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

 Fitzgerald praised, as did Hemingway, then at the height of his fame, Appointment in Samarra, O’Hara’s debut novel, and his finest. A negative review from Sinclair Lewis, who objected to the sexual frankness, made it even more appealing, no doubt. Dorothy Parker, O’Hara’s close friend, who he called “Her Wittiness”, told him that he was a genius. She was also responsible for the title. As O’Hara told the story in a later foreword, they had tea regularly while he was working on the book, and one day “she handed me a copy of the play Sheppy by W. Somerset Maugham, with the book open at the Samarra legend. I read the thing and said: ‘There’s the title for my book’”. He used the ancient tale, in which Death reveals to a Bagdad merchant his servant’s imminent death, as the novel’s epigraph because it “fitted nicely into the inevitability of Julian English’s death”. 

Set in Gibbsville, a fictional town based on Pottsville (O’Hara called it “my Yoknapatawpha”), the novel traces the vertiginous descent and suicide of English, an elegant, pugnacious, well-married, well-educated doctor’s son who diffidently operates a Cadillac dealership. At a holiday party at the country club, English, as confrontational as O’Hara, throws a drink for no discernable reason into the face of Harry Reilly, a wealthy social climber who has loaned him $20,000. When he is unable to patch things up with Reilly, he spirals downward, getting into more fights, including one with a one-armed veteran (shrewd touch, this) who is a close friend. After his wife tells him she is leaving him, English mixes a scotch cocktail in a flower vase, gulps it down, then climbs into his Cadillac in his closed garage and starts the engine. The story covers a thirty-six-hour span and, as Dorothy Parker noted, moves at an “almost unbelievable pace”. Even so, it pauses to sketch the personal histories of the major and some of the minor characters, doctors and gangsters, noting their precise perches on the Pottsville totem pole. O’Hara relates this background material in the brisk voice of a local historian, an old gaffer spilling out juicy tales in a barroom corner. 

His next novel, Butterfield 8, is a roman à clef based on the tragic life of another suicide, Starr Faithfull, a call girl and habitué of Manhattan speakeasies. O’Hara changed her name to Gloria Wandrous and described her dissolute life with sufficient candour to cause his British publisher, Faber and Faber, to refuse publication. As in Appointment in Samarra, O’Hara uses an omniscient narrator who, in the brilliant opening chapter, anatomizes the despair and remorse that Wandrous “had known perhaps two thousand times before”, when awakening in a strange bed with a hangover. On this particular morning, the bed belongs to Weston Liggett, a wealthy businessman twice her age. Gloria glances at family photos and takes whiffs from perfume bottles but really sees one thing only: the mink coat of Liggett’s wife. She puts it [on] and goes outside, taking a cab to buy a quart of scotch from a bootlegger. She refuses to return the coat, but begins a love affair with Liggett—he is similarly smitten—and this leads to a series of contretemps in several speakeasies, which O’Hara found easy to convincingly depict.

The third of the four novels is the long-out-of-print Hope of Heaven, a disjointed novella of murder and chicanery in Hollywood narrated by Jimmy Malloy, a reporter from Gibbsville who is also a secondary character in Butterfield 8 (and more than once an O’Hara stand-in). O’Hara claimed that Hope of Heaven was his finest novel, and the scenes set in a big unnamed Hollywood studio are impressive, prefiguring Fitzgerald’s renderings of the same in The Last Tycoon, but the novel’s cantilevered subplots teeter into confusion, and the major characters are a blur.

The last of the four, Pal Joey, structured as a sequence of letters written to a show-business friend by a Chicago nightclub singer and emcee named Joey Evans, is the only one of the four without a connection to Gibbsville. Pal Joey, as he signs his malaprop-ridden, half-literate but oddly poignant letters, recounts his adventures with musicians and mice (his term for young women) in and around Chicago to “Pal Ted”, a much more successful Manhattan emcee. In one of his letters he explains his sour view of Chicago-style nightclub singing:

[as qu] As for you my ex-pal you know what you can do and also you can sing for the $20 I owe you. I am making a little trip to N.Y. in the near future and we will have a little talk and you can explain your position, altho the way I feel now if I saw you your position would be horizontle. I might as well tell you I am going to the gym 3 or 4 times a week and not that I need it because I could always slap you around when ever I wanted to. You know what you can do. YOUR EX-PAL JOEY [end qu]

Pal Joey owes a debt to Ring Lardner’s interrelated letters to a friend from a struggling baseball player, You Know Me Al (1916), but O’Hara’s fourteen chapters, twelve of which appeared in the New Yorker, derive from an epiphany he had after a Homeric bender at the Hotel Pierre in New York.

I started Thursday. By Saturday morning I’d drunk myself sober. I picked up the phone and said, “What time is it”?

The girl says, “Quarter after 7”.

I asked her, “A.M. or P.M.”? The girl said, “A.M.” and “the day is Saturday”. They knew me there.

At that point remorse set in. I asked, “What kind of god damn heel am I? I must be worse n’ anybody in the world”. Then I figured, “No, there must be somebody worse than me—but who”? Al Capone, maybe. Then I got it—maybe some nightclub masters of ceremonies I know”. That was my idea. I went to work and wrote a piece about a nightclub heel in the form of a letter. I finished the piece by 11 o’clock. I went right home…The New Yorker bought the story the same day, ordered a dozen more, and then came the play, and the movie”.

O’Hara, who swore off liquor at the age of forty-eight after nearly dying from a perforated ulcer, said Pal Joey “was the only good thing I ever got out of booze”. His womanizing emcee was an immense success with readers and led O’Hara to propose a musical based on the book to Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. He wrote the libretto; they composed several classic songs, including “I Could Write a Book,” and “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”, and it opened on Broadway on Christmas Day 1940 with Gene Kelly as Joey. It had a record run of 347 performances and in 1957 was made into a film with Frank Sinatra in the leading role. As Thomas Mallon has written, “Joey’s is an American voice from the second act of the American century, a time when the country’s wisecracks and slang, thanks to movies and even to books, wrapped themselves around the thoughts and vocal cords of half the world”.

  As a young reporter, O’Hara read the transcripts of trials and press conferences, and also interviewed people, using shorthand, from every walk of life. From these experiences, he learned that “in ordinary conversation practically no one ever finishes a sentence. This is not the fault of the interrupters. It is chronic with nearly everybody . . . Quote any man verbatim for five minutes of extemporaneous speech and you will let him make an ass of himself”. His extraordinary rendering of the speech patterns of Americans from every region and strata – from African-Americans and Southern whites to rural eccentrics and urban slickers – vies with his work as an ethnographer of American society as the most influential aspect of his work. Raymond Carver and David Mamet are indebted to him for the former (and also for what Geoffrey Wolf describes as his “dialogue-as-combat”), and the portraits of middle-class life in the work of John Cheever and John Updike clearly travel in O’Hara’s wake.  

William Maxwell, O’Hara’s long-time editor at the New Yorker, referred to “my three Johns”: Cheever, Updike, and O’Hara. The books of the first two are still widely read, but O’Hara’s have fallen into obscurity, although the Library of America volumes could help reverse this. The dozen novels he wrote in the 1950s and 60s made him wealthy, partly because of their candor regarding the sexual drive of women – A Rage to Live (1949), and Ten North Frederick (1955) are notable in this regard. But both of these novels and those that followed through the 1960s read more like sociological field notes than novels. Updike, who admired O’Hara’s early work, applauded Brendan Gill’s comparison of the later novels to “giant ancient earthworks that one trudges over without ever discerning their purpose”. A strong-willed editor at his publishing house might have helped, but O’Hara never had one. He rejected advice and bragged that all his books were first draft.   

According to Wolff, Hemingway urged O’Hara “to combine the left jab of his perfected dialogue with the right hook of some literary purpose higher than mere accuracy”, but O’Hara was satisfied, as he said, writing “for the audience of his day and nation”, as the epigraph he composed–with his inveterate braggadocio—for his tombstone shows: “Better than anyone else, he told the truth of his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well”. 

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