Friday, May 16, 2008

Books: John O’Hara

In the early 1960s, my mom worked as an editor for a trade magazine published by McCall’s. Sportswear Merchandiser was sent to department and specialty stores nationwide, and my mom traveled around the country, profiling buyers and owners. I used to love to visit her in the office in what was then known as the Union General Building, a beautiful building near Grand Central Terminal that Harry Helmsley later bought and renamed. Hanging around Sportswear Merchandiser was my intro to the world of publishing—and I loved the whole scene, particularly some of the people.
Betty Strassberger was a funny, opionated lady of a certain age, and a voracious reader. Once she heard I liked to read, she would send me a couple of paperbacks a week, usually mysteries, sometimes hardboiled (Hammett, Chandler, MacDonald, McBain) or traditional (lots of classic English stuff). Betty would scrawl her review on the first page. When I found a book she’d like, I’d do the same—and she’d return it with her thoughts. Occasionally, I’ll come upon one of those books on my shelves and time-travel for a moment back to the 60s.
Betty didn’t always send mysteries, which is how I discovered John O’Hara at an early age. O’Hara (1905-1970) regularly published big collections of short stories, many of them from The New Yorker. He wrote about his native Pennsylvania, New York, and Hollywood, exploring America’s class system, high, middle and low. His writing was reportorial (he’d been a newspaperman), so detached at times to border on the clinical. I thought he was great. I still do.
Recently, I read “A Rage to Live,” his 1949 attempt to enter the Great American Novel sweepstakes (remember when writing the GAN was something people actually talked about—jeez, I’m getting old). This is a long, sweeping look at the denizens of a large fictional Pa. city (think Scranton) from the beginning of the 20th Century all the way to post WWll, in the closing pages. At its heart is Grace Tate, a woman whose sexuality is at odds with the prim world she inhabits. There are some wonderful set pieces that are so well written that you feel you really are at a July 4th celebration in 1917. And O’Hara knows the way that world worked. He was not an historical novelist, but he had the eye of an historian.
“A Rage to Live” doesn’t entirely work. There are long passages about relatively minor characters that should have been trimmed. And O’Hara’s vaunted gift for dialog fails several times, particularly when describing his characters as they make love. Always sexually daring for his time, he remained constrained in what he could describe and often relied on dialog to imply what was going on.
“A Rage to Live” was the book that triggered O’Hara’s eleven-year absence from The New Yorker, which ran a particularly nasty review by Brendan Gill. The thin-skinned O’Hara walked away until 1960, when his short stories reappeared.
As for the elusive Great American Novel, O’Hara’s first novel, “Appointment in Samarra” remains one of the best of the 20th Century. Luckily, it remains in print, as do several other novels and collections.
O’Hara said his goal was to tell the story of the first fifty years of that century better than anyone else. He was not the only contender. But he did his job well.


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