Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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And Other Stories – John O’Hara

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 15, 2010

My introduction to John O’Hara was in the form of a review of his biography published in NYTimes. The review was written by the eternally petulant Michiko Kakutani and was titled “Bending Over Backward For a Well-Known Lout“. The lout being referred to was John O’Hara. The biography itself was titled  “The Art Of Burning Bridges :A Life of John O’Hara” By Geoffrey Wolff. The article was disparaging of the biography and summarized O’Hara as an “interesting but ultimately minor writer”. It is this characterisation that attracted me to explore O’Hara and I began with a collection of his short stories

O’ Hara grew up and lived through a significant part of twentieth century America which went through an unprecedented metamorphosis – great depression, prohibition and its subsequent repealing, great inward migration, second world war, advent of mechanisation in agriculture and manufacturing, the rage of jazz, scientific progress, political turbulence, rise of wall street, a great liberation of sexual mores, world domination through military might and many others. The brilliance of O’ Hara’s writing is that he makes his plots, concerns and characters quintessentially American. When I read a good short story, I look forward to a level of abstraction that is relevant at a generic human condition. I found very minimal in O’ Hara’s writing that I could abstract into a universal concern. Everything is out and out American and America is by any measure no small canvas. Using this vast and rich canvas, O’ Hara produces remarkably brilliant and utterly enjoyable moods, characters, situations and a babel of distinct and diverse voices to life

O’ Hara is a remarkable observer of a changing society and yet his observations are never directly told. The reader gets to see and hear of these changes through the eyes, deeds and matter-of- fact conversations of his characters.         O’ Hara displays an extraordinary ability for mimicry when he makes his characters talk. The entire story of “We’ll Have Fun” is about how the advent of automobiles put paid the horse transportation industry in America but told through the angle of an odd jobs, hang-around-the-town kind of alcoholic, Tony Castello. Similarly, the mechanisation of agriculture has brought in the concept of ranches and the ranch among other things induced enormous loneliness in the farmer and this is brilliantly poured out in the story “Farmer“. In the story “Gangster” – the transformation of a young studious lad into an aspiring gangster is entertainingly told against the backdrop of the prohibition. In the story “A Few Trips and Some Poetry” one gets to read the uninhibited but racy sexual liberation of young Isabel Turner against the backdrop of industrialisation of the coal mining industry and the rise of jazz. In the story “Private People” one gets to see the break up and reconciliation of a once famous actor and his alcoholic wife against the backdrop of Hollywood and its quirks. “Papa Gibralter” is the subtle revelation that the famous actor who was thought to be like the rock of gibralter to his daughter is in real life far moved from that picture of solidity. The story is told against the backdrop of the rich but bygone years of broadway and hollywood.

O’ Hara’s characters come from all over the American society: rich, poor, educated, uneducated, professionals, criminals, perverted, liberals, conservative, sucessful, not so successful, gays, lesbians and straight-  each carrying concerns that are quintessentially American. Yet there is a force and urgency in their concerns that brings an unforgettable gravity to their personas. It is through this sharp focus, American quintessence and ability to express themselves eloquently, O’ Hara brings a richness to his writing which in my view makes him a wonderful story teller worth reading.

One Response to “And Other Stories – John O’Hara”

  1. Wm. Barton Buck said

    Very well expressed. O’Hara unfailingly and brilliantly pictured the society he observed and of which he so much watned to be an accepted and esteemed part. Sadly, he so often did things that alienated himself from his promised land. Considering his not inconsiderable talent, he was a somewhat tragic figure and his own worst enemy. Interestingly, he was much loved by his wives and daughter; they saw beyond his insecurities to the good that was within him.

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