Saturday, January 16, 2016

John O'Hara's short stories

The Dark Gift of Writer John O’Hara

Below is a review from about a collection of O’Hara short stories followed by three comments from review readers and then an afterword by the blog author.

Not among the great writers of short- stories

June 27, 2010

By Shalom Freedman

This review is from: Collected Stories of John O'Hara: Selected and With an Introduction by Frank MacShane (Hardcover)

Frank MacShane in his informative introduction to these Selected Stories claims that O'Hara is among the first rank of story writers. MacShane says it is the skill at dialogue, the brilliance at capturing so many different human types and voices which puts O'Hara in the first rank of story- writers. The opening story of the collection which was the best of those I read 'The Doctor's Son' gives some substantiation to MacShane's assertion. Set during the influenza epidemic during the First War it tells of a doctor's son and his adventures with the young doctor who comes to fill in for his father. In making the rounds we meet various communities each a part of the American mosaic. The dialogue brings the various voices to life. But what makes the story powerful is the harrowing and frightening descriptions of the effects of the epidemic. There is a sharpness and strength in the writing. One has a sense of a writer who really knows his characters and world. And yet the story ends to my mind in a disappointing way. Somehow the characters are not explored deeply enough. And if this is true in the opening story it is even more so in many of the more incidental smaller pieces which are more properly called vignettes. There is in the O'Hara world much incidental meaning, much off- hand connection. There are not the passions of Chekhov and Isaac Singer, nothing like the linguistic brilliance of Joyce, no characters who win our sympathy as Anderson's do in 'Winesburg Ohio'. There is not the humor of the Damon Runyan and Ring Lardner worlds and nothing of the incredible haunting originality of Kafka, or the colloquial loveableness of Salinger. There is rather a sense of toughness and mean- spiritedness, of down- and - outers and high- society folks who all are in some way or another not very generous, loving, kind, sensitive to the beautiful and the good.
In one sense the greatest Literature is that which makes us love life more, and see it as something greater than what we ourselves have known and experienced. Unfortunately O'Hara's work has for me the opposite effect.

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Three reviews of the above review

Magyar says:

You are certainly entitled to your opinion. I, personally, disagree with you VERY strongly. I don't know what stories are in here, EXCEPT "Imagine Kissing Pete", which (again in my opinion) is one of the best Novellas ever written.
My suggestion to you is to pick up "Cape Cod Lighter". Read "You don't remember Me", "Your Funeeh, Funeeh face", and the short story with Lefty Gaines as the main character. (The story that starts at a funeral). If you STILL do not think John O'Hara was one of America's best short story writers, then we agree to disagree.

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manny says:

writing is subjective. I believe I have read most of his shortstories. my sister recently gave me the gift of "the horse knows the way", which I had read long ago. still wonderful. if you don't get the writing , well, whatever.

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Anna Hunt says:

I would have to say I'm for the defense on this. O'Hara is a brilliant writer, but requires close reading. In his best writing the real story is in the background, the Doctor's Son being a perfect example. The characters in the foreground of the story are the son, Myers and Evans; the affair being the center of the plot, but the real main character is the influenza and how it is affecting everyone's lives. The change in the relationship between Myers and the father shows this. The father obviously finds out about the affair and cuts it short by returning to work; he casually mentions he doesn't have a place on his staff for Myers and steers him away from Gibbsville. How the epidemic affects everyone is dealt with in a very matter of fact way, the way it happens in real life. It's something he does over and over again. It is more obvious in works like Pal Joey, but much more subtle in, for example, a Rage to Live. Having said that, it can be easy to miss what is happening in the background; that just makes him more of a pleasure to reread. But I would agreed there is a toughness, and sometimes a meanness, towards his characters and you can feel him toying with them.

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Afterword by the Blog Author

More than a little bit like Kipling, John O’Hara remains one of the genuinely hated twentieth century writers.  I think O’Hara will survive and grow in the twenty-first century, partly because of the bias in that hatred.

O’Hara himself was needled by the critics of his own time and not regarded as one of the best writers; specifically, he was a second banana in the eyes of critics to John Steinbeck.  O’Hara’s defense, which is my own defense of O’Hara as well, is that he was writing about the actual lives of most Americans in the first half of the twentieth century rather than writing sentimentally about rural America as Steinbeck did famously and successfully.

O’Hara believed in the inherent pettiness and resentfulness of the American people, a view that is abhorrent to many but which has not been successfully challenged as a matter of intelligent criticism.  Because O’Hara brought the concept of original sin into modern life, vividly and through the storytelling of a classic, Greek, cynic narrator, he was a significant and even great writer.  O’Hara is telling us that the great American religion is resentment and that the overwhelming mood of Americans is competitiveness.

O’Hara’s peer and fellow-traveler, at least in terms of my own reading, is Margaret Mitchell and her not-yet-fully-appreciated masterpiece Gone with the Wind, a war epic that hauntingly remains the great story of obsessive love that falls apart.  These are both writers that shunned happy endings.  And contrary to most cookbooks on how to write fiction, they both wrote books that became fabulously successful movies.  O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 secured a best actress award deservedly given to Elizabeth Taylor.

O’Hara’s world is neither pretty nor optimistic.  But I want to say something about his overview because this is 2016 and I am 64 years old.  My grandparents were born in 1894, 1894, 1900 and 1907.  They were in their 20s and 30s when O’Hara wrote his best work during the depression.  He was right.  He wrote accurately and journalistically about a mean world that worshipped resentment.  The worth inherent in such narration may finally be valued when the last of the depression era children are gone.

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