John O'Hara: Stories
By John O'Hara
Library of America. 880 pp. $40.
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Reviewed by Kevin Grauke
nolead ends "John O'Hara never tired of complaining about how underestimated he was, and he had a point, even if he made it far too often." So writes Charles McGrath, the editor of this much-needed new collection of O'Hara's stories.
Indeed, the Pottsville-born O'Hara was - and remains - criminally underestimated, undervalued, and underread. Although he published 14 novels and hundreds of short stories (most of which first appeared in the New Yorker) over a career that spanned from the late 1920s until his death at 65 in 1970, he could never outshine his more celebrated contemporaries F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, much to his frustration.
If O'Hara is remembered at all these days, it's likely for one of three books: Appointment in Samarra, BUtterfield 8, or Pal Joey. The latter two are remembered mostly because of the movies based upon them (starring Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra, respectively), but the first-named novel rightfully deserves a much greater readership. In fact, Appointment in Samarra deserves to be read alongside The Great Gatsby as a genuine masterwork of the first half of the 20th century.
Sadly, almost everything else O'Hara wrote is now out of print, including all 12 of his short-story collections, which is why this new compilation is such a welcome sight. Gathering 60 stories written over 40 years, this edition takes us from the pithy sketches of O'Hara's early days to the more ruminative tales of his later years. Throughout, when not writing about New York City or Hollywood, he's writing about Gibbsville, the fictional place based on his hometown in Schuylkill County. Like William Faulkner's Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha, O'Hara's Gibbsville is a vivid and vital world populated with all sorts, from the elite of the country clubs to the immigrants of the mines, and all receive his critical and his loving gaze. These are the stories that deserve our attention most.
None of O'Hara's stories gets regularly anthologized alongside such chestnuts as Fitzgerald's "Babylon Revisited" or Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," which is a shame. Several deserve to be, including "Over the River and Through the Wood," "The Doctor's Son," "Price's Always Open," and the novella-length Imagine Kissing Pete. Fortunately for us, these are all included here, ready to be rediscovered after many years or discovered for the first time.
Less stylistically distinct than the work of either Fitzgerald or Hemingway, O'Hara's stories are always surgically precise and particular in their depictions of everyday life, especially when his characters speak. Virtually no other American writer had a better ear for the way people talked, whether they were educated and upper-crust or illiterate and coal-blackened.
"Better / Than Anyone Else / He Told the Truth / About His Time / He Was / A Professional / He Wrote / Honestly and Well." So says the inscription on John O'Hara's headstone in Princeton Cemetery. Written by the man himself, it's hardly humble but difficult to argue with, especially after reading this necessary collection.
Kevin Grauke is associate professor of English at La Salle University.