- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 4, 2003

A FAMILY OF HIS OWN: A LIFE OF EDWIN O’CONNOR.

By Charles F. Duffy

Catholic University of America Press, $49.95, 368 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY BRUCE ALLEN

Edwin O’Connor (1918-68) will be remembered less for a small, though engaging body of work than as the author of a novel whose title added a phrase into our language. “The Last Hurrah” (1956) is, if not the definitive fictional treatment of Irish-American politics, at the very least a jauntily exuberant portrayal of a uniquely resourceful and charismatic rogue.

O’Connor’s Frank Skeffington, inspired (as the novelist never quite admitted) by Boston’s infamous serial mayor, James Michael Curley, is a vivid amalgam of Machiavellian cunning and sentimental blarney that ought to have provided Spencer Tracy with one of his juiciest film roles. Alas, that didn’t happen: Tracy’s sluggish performance and director John Ford’s lethargic 1958 film version are uncharacteristic duds.

This first biography of Skeffington’s creator, the work of a professor of English at Providence College, is a warmly affectionate, though not uncritical look at a commercially successful novelist whose unfortunately brief career and life ended long before he might have achieved his declared ambition: to become “the Faulkner of the Irish in America.”

Born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island in 1918, “Sonny” (a nickname that lingered into his middle age) grew up as the eldest son of a second-generation Irish-American family made “comfortable” by his father’s successful medical practice. Edwin was an excellent student, with a vagrant mischievous streak, who would mature impressively at Notre Dame (1935-39), where he came under the literary influence of energetic English professor (and self-destructive alcoholic) Frank O’Malley, and performed as an announcer for the college’s radio station.

Relying on Hugh Rank’s 1974 critical study in Twayne’s U.S. Authors Series, and also an unfinished autobiographical novel (“The Boy”), Mr. Duffy efficiently traces O’Connor’s postgraduate radio career (at WPRO in Providence, then Boston’s WNAC, and elsewhere), service in the Coast Guard, and fortuitously forged connections with The Atlantic Monthly magazine and with tireless literary agent Helen Strauss.

His first novel “The Oracle” (1951), a satire on commercial radio, was a mixed success that created a lively self-absorbed antihero — and also offered the first of several portrayals of a vital, accomplished, judgmental father, about whom his son (the novel’s protagonist) became and remained deeply conflicted. The tensions of living without a fixed income (though he did freelance extensively as a newspaper television critic) doubtless contributed to the bleeding ulcer that nearly killed him in 1953.

But a therapeutic first trip to Ireland recharged his batteries, and was followed in 1956 by “The Last Hurrah.” This runaway success won a prestigious Atlantic Prize, earned (mostly) rapturous reviews, and made O’Connor a wealthy man — who quickly indulged in such luxuries as a Porsche and a summer home on Cape Cod.

Now a committed Bostonian, O’Connor spent his remaining twelve years trying to repeat “The Last Hurrah“‘s success. His most curious third novel “Benjy” (1957) was a “ferocious fairy tale” filled with unmistakable — and disturbing — autobiographical resonance.

Readers and critics alike have never known quite what to make of it. But O’Connor rebounded brilliantly with the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Edge of Sadness” (1961). This, his best novel, created the unforgettable characters of Father Hugh Kennedy (its witty narrator) and Hibernian-American patriarch Charlie Carmody, and led to a flurry of further awards and honors.

A happy midlife marriage (at age 44) to brainy and accomplished beauty Veniette Caswell Weill paradoxically signaled the beginning of the end. For her extensive tastes and his financial irresponsibility imposed increasingly heavy burdens that were exacerbated by the double misfire of O’Connor’s fourth novel “I Was Dancing” (1964).

First conceived as a play (which failed at every venue), it elicited almost universally negative reviews when published in book form. He rallied with “All in the Family” (1966), a yeasty tale of a Kennedy-like “family’s ruination by politics.” But this was a workmanlike performance at best (though it did sell well), and — except for a smattering of miscellaneous journalism — was itself the “last hurrah” for its author, who suffered a massive stroke and died in a Boston hospital in 1968.

Mr. Duffy’s evaluation of his achievement seems sound (“His special talents were … geared to probing the family dynamics of successful third-generation Irish-Americans”), and his book is especially astute in its emphasis on the concept of a surrounding, nurturing family as the ideal to which both O’Connor’s fiction and his life steadily aspired.

Accordingly, friendships were of great importance to him, and Mr. Duffy vividly charts O’Connor’s sustaining ones — with the aforementioned Frank O’Malley (who, remarkably enough, survived him); Atlantic editors “Ted” Weeks, Robert Manning, and Peggy Yntema; a charming Irish couple, “Hop” and Niall Montgomery; Harvard professor (and one of O’Connor’s most perceptive critics) John V. Kelleher; cartoonist Al Capp, literary renaissance man Edmund Wilson, political historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and — perhaps the man he loved most outside his immediate family — the brilliant radio comedian Fred Allen (whose autobiography “Treadmill to Oblivion” was informally “edited” by Ed O’Connor).

Mr. Duffy is less successful pinning down the personality of a “merry,” tolerant man, “courtly and considerate with women,” and a devoted Catholic (and generous financial contributor to the Church) who was nevertheless also prone to depression, politically neutral to the point of passivity (despite the crucial importance of politics in his novels), and just possibly a bit of a prig (he never smoked or drank, disliked risqu entertainment or conversation, and disapproved of film Skeffington Spencer Tracy’s ex cathedra involvement with Katharine Hepburn).

Yet the work still stands. Mr. Duffy is frank about its ramshackle construction and the notorious “lack of careful planning” that gave O’Connor trouble with endings throughout his career. This useful book also focuses welcome attention on O’Connor’s handful of uncollected short stories (“Parish Reunion” and “A Grand Day for Mr. Garvey” sound particularly intriguing), writings for radio broadcast, and uncompleted plays. And it whets one’s appetite for the pleasures of “The Last Hurrah” (which has remained in print for nearly 50 years) and the somewhat more complex ones offered by “The Edge of Sadness.” Ed O’Connor was no Faulkner, but he knew his turf, and his Irish-American world is still a wonderful place to visit.

Bruce Allen is a Contributing Editor to Kirkus Reviews and a freelance contributor to the Boston Globe, Sewanee Review, and several other publications.

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