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Deconstructing John O'Hara

The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O'Hara, Geoffrey Wolff, Alfred A. Knopf: 376 pp., $30 Appointment in Samarra: A Novel, John O'Hara, Vintage: 252 pp., $13 paper Butterfield 8: A Novel, John O'Hara, The Modern Library: 228 pp., $12.95 Selected Short Stories of John O'Hara, John O'Hara, The Modern Library: 226 pp., $12.95

September 07, 2003|Tom Nolan | Tom Nolan is the author of "Ross Macdonald: A Biography."

Ever since he burst onto the scene in 1934 at the age of 29 with his dazzling first novel, "Appointment in Samarra," appreciating John O'Hara has been a complicated matter.

For one thing, he wrote so much in the 3 1/2 decades between his debut and his death in 1970 -- thousands of pages -- that it was difficult to separate the good work from the bad or indifferent. For another, there seemed to be two O'Haras in one career: the bestselling novelist who turned out sprawling (some said bloated) epics that spanned generations, and the short-story and novella writer of dream-sharp tales, as crisp yet as dense as a film shot by James Wong Howe. And then there was O'Hara himself: a combative man; a belligerent, violent drunk; a burner of bridges; his own worst enemy; a man who coveted honors and complained when he didn't get them (and even when he did). Outliving his contemporaries, he outlived his own artistic context. In his final years, he was a political conservative in a time of protest, a relic of the raccoon-coat era in the age of Woodstock.

In "The Art of Burning Bridges," Geoffrey Wolff, a novelist and author of the highly regarded biography "Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby" and the memoir "The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father," has separated the various perceptions, beliefs, myths and lies surrounding O'Hara and put them together again in a cohesive account.

"My aim," writes Wolff, "is ... to restore to John O'Hara's complicated history those human and occupational particulars that make him a writer worthy of attention." With its "human and occupational particulars," Wolff's biography sets for itself an O'Hara-esque goal, and Wolff, director of the graduate fiction program at UC Irvine, meets it with a brilliance worthy of its subject on the best day of his best year.

Wolff makes clear from the start that he can't do everything. "The problem for a biographer with no direct experience of the young John O'Hara," he writes, "is the necessity of leaving unexplained the major mystery of his personality; namely, why so many men and women found it pleasing to be in his company." Partly, Wolff guesses, O'Hara's regrettable behavior was characteristic of those hard-drinking times, a period when "falling down drunk was a cause of mirth, and a bad story told well on oneself was a reputation-enhancer."

The sensitivity of O'Hara's writing gives proof, Wolff argues, that there was more to like in the author than the "monster of solipsism" he often was: "He didn't reproduce the cadences and underlying reality of spoken idiom without listening to voices other than his own; he couldn't have so accurately drawn pictures of his times without staring out, at the integrities as well as the incongruities of his companions, as well as selfward. Without these nuances of motive and act, certified by the fact of his friends' loyalty as well as by the specifics of work, it would be easy to write him off as a coarse bully and a social climber, a mean drunk and a brutal husband. And indeed, hanging judges among critics have for years dismissed him along with his work in just such terms."

Wolff, of course, is no hanging judge but a passionate defense attorney. O'Hara couldn't ask for a better champion. The brief for O'Hara begins with his childhood as the son of a stern and respected doctor whose stubbornness was bred into a talented boy unwilling or unable to toe the line Dad drew. With the skills of a novelist, Wolff brings to life the world of relative privilege that shaped and misshaped O'Hara.

Born in 1905 in the coal-mining city of Pottsville, Pa., O'Hara was "the altar-boy eldest son of one of the most esteemed families in a region stingy about bestowing its esteem." O'Hara's father was a personage in this region -- hence, so was his heir. "To be a doctor's son," Wolff writes, "was to expect a passerby to curtsy or tip the hat." Before he was a teenager, O'Hara was accompanying his father on the doctor's rounds: going into darkened rooms where ordinary children weren't allowed, gazing without blinking on scenes of mortal sickness. "When he came back out into the light, he emerged as a writer."

But his father wanted John to be a medical man, something the adolescent resisted. The strong-willed doctor, notes Wolff, "met in his son a match for stubborn pride, for prickly self-governance." Rebellious John became "a teenage pain," then a flamboyant screw-up.

On the eve of his graduation as valedictorian of Niagara Prep and the brink of probable entrance into Yale, O'Hara went with two classmates on a memorable drinking spree, from which the three were escorted back to school the next morning by police. The hung-over O'Hara awoke to learn he'd been stripped of his prep-school diploma, and his enraged father vowed: "I'll be damned if I'll send a drunk to Yale."

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