- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 4, 2003

THE ART OF BURNING BRIDGES: A LIFE OF JOHN O’HARA

By Geoffrey Wolff

Knopf, $30, 398 pages

REVIEWED BY REX ROBERTS

Fans of John O’Hara have long rued his brusque treatment by critics and academics who dismissed his novels as prolix potboilers and him as a bully and a boor. But to borrow the title of one of O’Hara’s books, an artist is his own fault. The author gave his enemies (and friends) plenty of reason to dislike him, and his obstinacy (he resisted editing, refused to be anthologized and generally made unreasonable demands on agents and publishers) had a debilitating effect on his career.

As a consequence, O’Hara isn’t much read in colleges or discussed in literary circles. O’Hara enjoyed his fair share of accolades during his lifetime, however. His first book, “Appointment in Samarra,” was hailed as a masterpiece upon its publication in 1934 (and later was listed among Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, an honor not accorded to

“Ten North Frederick” won the National Book Award in 1956. His other ambitious bestsellers — “A Rage to Live” (1949), “From the Terrace” (1958) and “Ourselves to Know” (1960) — prompted the American Academy of Arts and Letters to present the author with its Award of Merit for the Novel, putting O’Hara in the company of Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann.

Beyond the medals and ribbons, O’Hara was applauded for his adventurous style and audacious subject matter. He may be remembered as a social realist obsessed with the peccadilloes of the upper class, but he was considered a daring writer in the Thirties and Forties, his best prose distinguished by its concision, clever dialect and sexual candor. He is credited with inventing the New Yorker short story, and he changed the course of American theater with his unconventional book for the musical “Pal Joey” (1940), based on his satiric sketches.

Why, then, is John O’Hara not celebrated? How did this accomplished contemporary of William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck get lost in the reshuffle of American literature? “Egregious episodes of bad judgment and cruelty marred O’Hara’s life,” writes Geoffrey Wolff in “The Art of Burning Bridges,” “especially when he was drinking too much; and certain of these outrages — uncontested in their hatefulness — threaten to discolor any valuation of O’Hara’s nature.” That is to say, O’Hara was a mean drunk, moody braggart and unconscionable social climber who constantly name-dropped and conspicuously consumed clothing, cars and club memberships appropriate to a man of his self-regard. Worse yet, in some critics’ views, he embraced Republican politics as he aged.

O’Hara’s mortal sin, however, was his choice of genre. Critics have been suspicious of the novel of manners, “considered politically, thus aesthetically, incorrect,” since the days of Edith Wharton, writes Mr. Wolff, “assuming that ‘manners’ refer to social climbing and that climbing is a fit action only for mountaineers, that slights are life-changing only if suffered by those of a minority religion or with off-white skin pigmentation.”

Mr. Wolff, a fiction writer, commiserates with O’Hara on this point, as he does with his use of real locations in his books. “Having written a novel titled Providence … set in that actual Rhode Island city, I have felt the lash of parochial resentment,” confesses Mr. Wolff, slipping into the fashionable first person to discuss O’Hara’s transformation of Pottsville, his birthplace, into Gibbsville (named after Wolcott Gibbs, the New Yorker editor). Pottsvillians, according to legend, despise their native son for exposing their hypocrisy, convinced his books were kiss-and-tell romans a clef.

It’s true the city “rather mordantly” rechristened one of its least attractive streets — a red-light district converted to public housing — in O’Hara’s honor. But the notion that Pottsvillians hate O’Hara is old hat.

Mr. Wolff fails to mention that Pottsville recently erected a bronze statue of O’Hara — a likeness after the manner of the photograph gracing Mr. Wolff’s dustjacket — smack in the center of town. (He pointedly lists similar honors bestowed upon Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe and others.) He also overlooks the fact that the local arts council has sponsored three O’Hara conferences, and that local litterateurs founded The John O’Hara Journal, a little magazine that published a noteworthy sheaf of O’Hara criticism as well as original fiction and poetry.

There’s something more seriously askew with “The Art of Burning Bridges,” however. Mr. Wolff respects O’Hara’s talent and work ethic, but he doesn’t care for O’Hara himself. “Sometimes I just can’t like this man,” he admits toward the end of the book. Previous biographers didn’t shy from O’Hara foibles and faults, although they treated their subject according to their dispositions.

Finis Farr, a friend of the author, colored his portrait with tints of nostalgia. Matthew J. Bruccoli, a meat-and-potatoes scholar, concentrated on facts (he also collected O’Hara’s letters and assembled a bibliography). Frank MacShane, an elegant writer and practiced biographer, finally managed a realistic yet sympathetic account of O’Hara’s character and work.

Mr. Wolff follows in MacShane’s footsteps, perhaps a little too closely. There’s not much new in this book, with the exception of some interesting trivia. (Anyone with passing knowledge of John O’Hara knows he adorned his Rolls Royce with vanity plates reading “JOH-1,” but Mr. Wolff reports he once drove a Ford blithely tagged “D-69,” the “D” referring to “Doc,” a nickname O’Hara appropriated from his surgeon father.) If Mr. Wolff is more animated discussing O’Hara’s work, it’s because O’Hara’s life already is well documented, and because Mr. Wolff, an insouicant researcher, was disinclined to chase down facts.

What, then, is Mr. Wolff’s opinion of O’Hara’s writing? Decidedly conventional. The short stories are wonderful, occasionally brilliant (he wrote more than 400 of them); the novels mediocre, often exasperating (except for “Samarra”). “Do I wish I’d never read them?” asks Mr. Wolff in a chapter titled “The Tomes,” an epithet that sums up his attitude toward O’Hara’s family sagas. “From the Terrace cost me a couple of weeks. There were times, reading its densely printed pages, when I was distracted by calculations of just how many weeks remain to someone in early old age.”

The faults that annoy Mr. Wolff — and that prompted Brendan Gill to write a scathing review of “A Rage to Live” in the New Yorker a half century ago — are too longstanding to be dismissed as matters of arbitrary taste or personal prejudice. Mr. Wolff’s explanation for O’Hara’s aesthetic failure, however, is typically snide.

“Comparative serenity — allowing for steady composition over unbroken stretches of time, so alien to O’Hara’s earlier writing experiences in New York and Hollywood — was not necessarily the happiest circumstance for his fiction,” he writes about the author’s years in Princeton. “Now he could stretch out and indulge evolutionary and inflationary and bloviationary instincts to his epic aspirations for the generations of Gibbsville.”

Mr. Wolff embarked on this biography, he explains in his preface, because he saw similarities between O’Hara and his own father, whom he has written about in his memoir, “The Duke of Deception.” Both men were sons of doctors, both were nasty drunks, both owned blackthorn walking sticks … Mr. Wolff’s list is lengthy. He came to understand that the comparison was superficial. “I expected that I was an appropriate teller of John O’Hara’s tale,” he writes. “I know now that if I am, it is not for the reasons I suspected.”

Despite the ambiguity of his feelings toward his subject, Mr. Wolff has done O’Hara a good deed. “The Art of Burning Bridges,” an entertaining read, brings welcome attention to a writer whose best work (his stories and “Appointment in Samarra,” surely, but also “Ten North Frederick” and “Pal Joey”) is of enduring interest. The issue of a new biography, as well as the Library of America’s probable reissue of his work in conjunction with the centennial of his birth in 2005, might even make for a bona fide renaissance. Then the critics can further beg the question: Is John O’Hara a major minor writer, or a minor major writer.

Rex Roberts, a writer, editor and designer living in New York.


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