He Cared Too Much

Stories by John O’Hara.  The Library of America.  860 pp.  $40.00

John O’Hara was an Irish Catholic and doctor’s son from Eastern Pennsylvania who believed—apparently for much of his life—that he would have been a happy man if he had just gone to Yale.  That didn’t keep him from getting booted from three prep schools, one on the night before his graduation, where he was to have been valedictorian.  He bounced around in various journalism jobs before he began writing fiction—always his true ambition—and invented what is known as the New Yorker story, or at least became one of its earliest practitioners.  He made a big splash with his first novel, Appointment in Samarra, became notorious with his second, Butterfield 8, and eventually became known for mammoth bestsellers like From the Terrace and A Rage to Live.

O’Hara believed he was a serious writer, the legitimate heir to Fitzgerald, but his huge commercial success and sometimes raunchy subject matter seemed to work against him (toward the end of his life, a reviewer in the Times called him “the most authentically dirty mind in American fiction”).  He actually believed he was a candidate for the Nobel Prize, and said he would buy a Rolls Royce when he won it; eventually he just bought the Rolls anyway.  Toward the end of his life his work got seriously kinky, with stories about gay and lesbian sex, cross dressers, various other subjects that were shocking in serious fiction in the sixties.  Because of his journalistic training, he had always worked at night; in April of 1970 he complained one evening of chest pains and went to bed early.  He was found dead the next morning.  He was 65 years old.

O’Hara was the dirty author of my youth, all we had in the early sixties before the Supreme Court decisions made Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller available.[1] Our parents all had O’Hara’s bestselling novels around; I can still remember my friend Stan Hahn telling me there was a passage in From the Terrace—which I soon found—where a new bride says, “Can’t you put it in me?” and her husband says, “I can and will, right now.”  We found that hilarious, and used to repeat those phrases to each other at various choice moments.  From the Terrace was a treasure in that regard, along with various other volumes.  Though I loved literature and began thinking of myself as a writer around the age of fifteen, and I too was the son of a Pennsylvania doctor[2], I didn’t take O’Hara seriously.  I put him in a category with someone like Irving Wallace.

But in my freshman year at Duke, when I was studying for exams in the spring, I was sitting in what was called the Undergraduate Reading Room, and adjacent to it was a small annex with couches and shelves full of current literature.  One of the books there was an O’Hara volume of stories, Waiting for Winter.  Whatever I was studying was boring as hell to me, and I worked through it by deciding that, every half hour, I could go into that annex and read a short story.  I had spent that year trying to learn to write stories myself, studying with Reynolds Price and Wallace Kaufmann, and I was amazed at the quality of O’Hara’s stories, how fascinating and effortless they were, how great the dialogue was, and how much O’Hara knew (including the skeletons in the closet) about people from my background.  I instantly became an O’Hara fan, eventually read everything he’d written, including From the Terrace, which is far from just a dirty book.  O’Hara was actually quite brave to get into the seamier side of his characters’ lives.  He probably would have had a better reputation if he hadn’t.[3]

If O’Hara has a claim to greatness, it is probably in the short story form, and this volume—superbly culled by Charles McGrath, with excellent notes and an informative Chronology[4]—should open people’s eyes to how great he was.  It is in effect a new work by John O’Hara.  Those early New Yorker stories had an incredible range in types of characters, everything from small time grifters and barflies to society people; they were also incredibly compressed, told a lot of story in a short space.  As O’Hara got older he relaxed into a longer story, not so tight and stark, but that seemed a natural development to his talent, and the longer stories offer a relaxed pleasure that the shorter ones do not (though many of them were published in the New Yorker as well).  This volume contains 60 stories, which have a remarkable range, through types of people and narrative techniques, and they were chosen from the 374 stories that O’Hara published in his lifetime.  He wrote on a typewriter in short nocturnal bursts, could finish a story in two hours, and rarely made changes, or allowed changes to be made (he had a difficult relationship with editors).  “I don’t consult dictionaries,” he said at one time.  “Dictionaries consult me.”

That arrogant remark calls to mind his reputation—I can’t remember where I read this phrase—as the master of the imagined slight.  One time he was coming to New York to see his famous editor, Bennet Cerf, and Cerf was delighted because Faulkner was going to be in town at the same time and the three of them could get together.  O’Hara wasn’t interested in sharing Cerf with another author, especially not one who had actually won the Nobel, so he told Cerf he wanted to meet with him alone.  Cerf understood.  At the end of the evening, O’Hara went up to bed, but after a while walked back out in the hallway and called down to his host.  “I wanted to make sure you didn’t sneak out to see Faulkner,” he said.

On another occasion a woman told him how much she loved his most recent book of stories.  She liked it even more than his last book.  “What was wrong with the last book?” he said.  When O’Hara published a novella called A Small Hotel, he called the composer Richard Rogers to let him know, because he’d taken the title from a Rogers tune.  Rogers was pleased, but mentioned that the song title was actually There’s a Small Hotel.  “When I want you to name a book for me I’ll let you know,” O’Hara said, and hung up.

There was something about this extreme sensitivity—often to slights that the other person didn’t intend—that was part of his gift.  He knew what all the small thing meant, the make of the car, the small gold pig on the watch chain, the worthless titles that people took so seriously, and he knew some of it because he wanted those things himself.  To say that he was the Irish Catholic son of a doctor describes the problem in a nutshell.  His father was well off when he was alive and had great respect in the Eastern Pennsylvania towns where he worked, but he wasn’t a part of the WASP establishment, as—for instance—Hemingway had been, however much Hemingway rejected it.  O’Hara never forgot that, and neither, apparently, did the people around him.

I have a special affection for The Doctor’s Son, which was the title story in an early volume of stories and paints a picture of an era long forgotten, when a doctor made house calls during a flu epidemic, when he sometimes got paid and sometimes didn’t, when he visited slums where people didn’t speak English, when his fifteen year old son—before the age of the driver’s license, apparently—drove him around to make those calls and saw some things he shouldn’t have.  I actually love all the Jimmy Malloy stories, O’Hara’s autobiographical character, especially The Doctor’s Son and another long one in this volume, Imagine Kissing Pete, which was part of a trilogy of novellas called Sermons and Soda Water.  That whole trilogy is marvelous.  I’ve read it multiple times.

I think it is the autobiographical stories that hold the key to the real John O’Hara, including his famous sensitivity.  Saying that O’Hara had the most authentically dirty mind in American fiction is funny—it’s a great phrase—but it shouldn’t be the way we remember him.  O’Hara wrote about supposedly dirty things because they were a part of life, as much a part of life as the cars and clothes and stick pins that he catalogued so well.  He was never judgmental about his characters’ sexual proclivities, but he thought they were part of the story, as they are.  And while the Jimmy Malloy character notices all the things that are going on around him, he’s not a priapic hero like Henry Miller.  He’s an incurable romantic, the guy all the girls tell their sad stories to, not knowing he would write them up later.  He’s also the man who bursts into tears in We’re Friends Again when someone alludes to the death of his second wife (that novella is largely the story of how he met his third).

The chip he always had on his shoulder, I think, had to do with never being able to please his father, who is always presented as stern and difficult, who wanted his son to follow him into medicine, for whom nothing his son did was ever enough, and who finally sealed his son’s fate by dying without a will at the age of 57, so O’Hara couldn’t go to any college, much less Yale (his dying words to his son are said to have been, “Poor John”).  There is a three page story early in this volume called It Must Have Been Spring where the doctor’s son is heading off to go riding, and he encounters his father along the way.  I’ve never forgotten the way that story ends.

“I started to go.  I went down the porch steps and we both said goodbye, and then, when I was a few steps away, he called to me to wait.

“‘You look fine,’ he said.  ‘You really look like something.  Here.’  He gave me a five-dollar bill.  ‘Save it.  Give it to your mother to put in the bank for you.’

‘‘Thank you,’ I said, and turned away, because suddenly I was crying.  I went up the street to the stable with my head bent down, because I could let the tears roll right out of my eyes and down to the ground without putting my hand up to my face.  I knew he was still looking.”

O’Hara didn’t want people to know how strongly he felt things.  But that strong feeling is all through his best stories.

[1] My older sister had traveled to Europe and returned with a copy of Lady Chatterley; my brother and I discovered it among her books in the attic.  My surreptitious forays up to the attic to read that novel singed my eyebrows.

[2] I believe that my father identified with O’Hara.  He had wished to be a writer as a young man, but like O’Hara had an overbearing father who would only pay for college if he would agree to become a doctor.  My father finally agreed to that, as O’Hara had not.  The Doctor’s Son was always a part of his library.

[3] Late in his life he gave a speech to that effect, when he received an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  “Some of the liberties that the younger writers enjoy today were paid for by me, in vilification of my work and abuse of my personal character.”

[4] The Chronologies at the end of the Library of America volumes are among my favorite parts of the books.  I read them avidly before I begin the text.