Review of Selected
Short Stories of John O’Hara
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/12/06
I picked up an old Modern Library edition of the Selected Short Stories of John O’Hara, and was alternating my reading of them with a short story collection by postmodern poseur David Foster Wallace. The difference in skill and accomplishment is immense. As could be expected, Wallace’s work is utter tripe- devoid of wordly skill, insight, and any hints of good conversation or character development. Not so with O’Hara; but while his worst is a mile better than Wallace’s best he is not a great writer, at least of short stories. That said, I do not believe his current low standing in Academic circles will last, and his work will rise up, although never to the heights it once was in the 1940s and 1950s when his short stories were regular fixtures in the New Yorker. In fact, along with the later Alice Adams, John O’Hara may be, for better or worse, called the grandfather of the New Yorker style of short fiction, which are tales of only one or two layers of depth that are, in the reality of short story collections, usually filler pieces between the meatier and more substantive tales the writer presumes to offer.
One of the things that took a bit of getting used to, especially vis-à-vis Wallace’s monumentally bad and overblown tales is just how short the typical O’Hara tale is- about 1500-2000 words in length. That said, I’m not going to tell you that all the tales succeed- perhaps a quarter I would label good or better, and even those are, given the brevity, mere sketches in which a situation is presented, a key incident or element occurs, and then there’s a good ending that sticks. In the lesser tales there’s usually not enough room to really work up empathy for a character or situation, and the people described end up as full blown caricatures, or relative emotional stick figures. In short, O’Hara was a very formulaic writer, at least in the thirty-two tales in the book, out of the over four hundred short stories in eleven books he published in his lifetime, not including such novels as Appointment In Samarra and Butterfield 8. That he was once considered worthy of Nobel mention shows that dubious resumes have always been considered, even well before the PC Era.
That said, while he may not measure up to later writers of the genre, like a Richard Yates or Raymond Carver, he was absolutely a better short story teller than overrated writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor. Although his tales were noticeably shorter, his work reminds me, in tone, of the tales of Eudora Welty, in that there is nothing great, but there always seems to be a lurking potential that went unfulfilled. An interesting element I came across, while researching O’Hara’s life (1905-1970) was that, like me, he never went to college. Yet, while I’ve done ok by that fact, financially and personally, there seems to have been a strain of resentment and anger about the class distinctions that are assumed by the non-college educated. Yet, he strove for that, and one of the things that is noticeable in his work is that he falls somewhere midway between the convincing, acidly etched portraits of working class types that was the staple of Raymond Carver, and the dull, arid, and lifeless caricatures that occupy the short stories of John Updike. In short, his tales have some of the good points of both, and almost all the flaws. Ironically, the same passions and doubts about his lack of a college education seemed to propel him, as also many of short story characters, into literal and literary social climbing mode, another thing that his critics have used to damn him.
Yet, there is an elemental grittiness to his best short stories, and he seems to have had no problems undercutting the pervasive American boosterism of the Great Depression and World War Two eras, deflating such with pitiless gazes upon social snobbery, classism, bigotry, sex, ambition, hatred, and ethnic tensions, all products of the urban underbelly that would explode a few decades later during the Vietnam an Watergate eras. And, while his tales are often paper thin, they move, and are crisp, and to the point.
Here is a typical O’Hara dilemma and end: in the short story Now We Know a lonely woman named Mary Spellacy falls in love with a married bus driver, who reciprocates, then changes his route, to avoid her. Note the brevity and lack of mawk that infects most modern short story writers of the PC Era:
‘Monday night I change with a fellow over at Forest Hills- he lives nearer, where it’ll be more convenient for him. That’s a week from Monday night. Christ, I think of you all day. She’s all right, my wife, but a lot of people in this world- phooey. You’re not saying anything. Well, I guess I know what you’re thinking.’
‘Not by the way you say that you don’t. I have to think.’
‘No you don’t. I told you you didn’t have any responsibility. I only told you for my own satisfaction.’
‘You’re wrong there, Herbert. I have the responsibility that I let you be the first to say anything. If you hadn’t said anything, I would have said something. Or showed it somehow, and prob’ly did. Well, at least we got it out in the open.’
‘Yes, I guess so. Anyway, now we know.’
Were this on Broadway, the tale would end with a ba-dum-bum. Such clipped but realistic dialogue is lost in today’s bloated ‘serious’ fiction that seems to only suck the swill of PC Elitism or Post-Modern nonsense.
Here is the end of another story, Too Young, about a boy with a crush on an older girl, who he knows is out of his league, but then accepts an offer from a grown policeman. They boy stews in impotent frustration:
No one must see him; he could tell his mother he had forgotten about her car. Right now he wanted to walk alone and to think thoughts that he hated and that would forever ruin his life. And the god-damn awful part was that there was nothing, nothing, nothing to do but what he was doing now. ‘Let me alone!’ he said, to no one.
The last sentence, and the triple nothing are perfect capsulations of a timeless youthful reaction to frustration, and shows what might have been had O’Hara been more welded to the idea that he was pursuing a high and noble art, not merely remuneration for feeding the public beast. In short, despite being written many decades ago, it retains a relatable hook into a reader- even an average one. This is something the vapid writing of a David Foster Wallace never does.That said, although he was a flawed writer who deserved to be knocked a peg or two lower than he was during his life, he shines well above the current morass of what passes for ‘serious’ fiction, and serves as an abject lesson for purveyors of pap today- and I mean you Mary Gaitskill, David Foster Wallace, and Jhumpa Lahiri!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.]
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