Four Novels of the 1930s
By John O’Hara
Library of America, 2019
The extremely detailed and oddly riveting author chronology editor Steven Greenleaf appends to his Library of America volume of John O’Hara work titled “Four Novels of the 1930s” reads like a protracted police report. It begins quietly enough, with O’Hara’s birth in Pottsville, Pennsylvania in 1905, but the tyke is barely out of short pants before he’s starting to get into just about every kind of trouble on offer, and Greenleaf’s telegraphic just-the-facts-ma’am delivery somehow makes it all seem even more lurid. Little John is a feckless and indifferent altar boy by 1917, and by 1919 things already something of a train wreck:
Brother Eugene is born. By now O’Hara is chauffeuring his father around the Pottsville area on house calls, a task he will later fictionalize in the long story “The Doctor’s Son,” and is a precocious smoker and drinker, already coming home drunk on occasion. Relationship with his father begins to sour; when he refuses his father’s offer to deposit $10,000 in a savings account for him if he agrees to become a doctor, father’s disappointment in him becomes more or less permanent.
Even here in embryonic form, there’s a great deal of the bloated, pugnacious, self-destructively proud John O’Hara of coming decades but also something oddly, stubbornly likable, something that instantly raises ethical questions and settles them in ways far more visceral and agreeable than the hair-splitting simperings of later intellectuals who had nothing but polite disdain for O’Hara. There’s an oddly compelling combination of fidelity and opportunism in the picture of a young chauffeur taking mental notes the whole time, and even in summary, that $10,000 savings account deposit suddenly looks like a bribe.
But when the ethical questions start morphing into fire-and-brimstone matters of public morality, that chronology becomes even stranger. Greenleaf is suddenly forever talking about sheriffs and school boards banning O’Hara’s novels and short stories, and younger readers of this Library of America collection, perhaps coming to this anthology without ever having read O’Hara before and then coming to this chronology after they’ve read these novels ... those readers will be very confused, at least until they remember that each successive generation is largely inoculated against the outrages of its predecessors.
Yes, the novels collected here are fairly well saturated with sex, and the casual, almost leathery texture of O’Hara’s prose on the subject is certainly what ruffled censors in the 1930s. Appointment in Samarra, the 1934 debut novel that put O’Hara on the literary scene, indeed opens with a married couple in bed, the husband idling contemplating waking his wife for sex. But the book is far more accurately captured in the hurried, circular thoughts of its main character Julian English in a typical passage:
He stood up. “I said, I have to have five thousand dollars, and I don’t know where I can get it ... Yes, I do. Nowhere.” He knew he was lying to himself; that he did not need five thousand dollars. He needed money, and he needed it soon, but not five thousand dollars. Two thousand would be enough, and with any break in the beginning of the year, after the auto shows in New York and Philadelphia (which are attended by a surprising number of Gibbsville automobile enthusiasts), he would be able to get back on his feet. But he reasoned that it was just as hard to get two thousand as five, five thousand as two. It was easier to get five, he told himself; and as he had argued less than a year ago, when he had gone to Harry Reilly for a loan, he might as well go for the neat, convenient-sounding sum. The question seemed to be: Where to get it.
Not so much bad sex on the character’s part but bad typing on the author’s part, in other words. O’Hara novels tend to be odd inverse-marathoners: the longer they run, the flabbier they get. The author, blindingly drunk for a statistical one-half of the 1930s, never managed time well and never plotted around corners ... two severe handicaps for writing long-form fiction. Inevitably, even finishing his novels late involved him locking himself in some forlorn hotel room and filling ashtrays and pounding on a manual typewriter to force-march his word-count to exactly the kind of staggered and unsatisfying climax so many of his married characters endure.
He’s incalculably stronger when writing short stories, and it’s satisfying that ensuing decades of literary reception seem to be acknowledging that fact. Pal Joey, the collection of stories here included about a character Goldleaf describes as a “colorfully unscrupulous nightclub emcee,” disrupts the collection’s title of “novels” of the 1930s - these slangy, irresistible tales were never conceived as parts of a whole and read that way only on the vaguest of levels - but therefore provides the volume’s high point of reading, coming after the cumulatively powerful Appointment in Samarra, the only intermittently moving Butterfield 8, and Hope of Heaven, a portly and lachrymose mess of a book that owes its weirdly robust reprint history mainly to the picturesque era during which it was written.
But O’Hara, a strong writer who never met a weakness he didn’t indulge, never wholly fails. Even his novels have challenges and rewards, almost always involving the wry and pointedly sad twists he could give to even the simplest bits of business, as in this moment from Butterfield 8:
“I love you, Eddie darling,” she would say.
“I love you, Gloria,” he would say, always wanting to say more than that, like: “No matter what they say about you,” or “I wish I’d known you five years earlier,” or “Why don’t you pull yourself together?”
A couple of years ago, the Library of America came out with a volume of John O’Hara short stories that was too short by half (a truly big collection of those stories has yet to appear) but had scarcely a weak note anywhere in its length. In some ways, Four Novels of the 1930s is its necessary counterpoint; it was these novels, not all those bashed-out stories, that gave form to the unreachable dreams of glory that would motivate and torment O’Hara for the rest of his professional career. As honored as he would have been to find himself immortalized in the Library of America, he might still have quibbled, O’Hara-style, with the inclusion of all these Pal Joey stories, not one of which ever saw a touch of the reviser’s pencil nor sustained any dream beyond a quick $100 check from Harold Ross. This volume will take readers through something of the world of 1930s fiction, the work of it, the musty adulthood of it. And if it provides them with fewer flashes of light genius than they’d been led to expect, well, such was the decade.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.