The Life of John O'Hara

Dutton, $15.95

One can certainly argue with Frank MacShane’s assertion that the best work of John O’Hara places him among “the half-dozen most important writers of his time,” but there is no question that it holds a special place in American literature. It consists of some forty short stories and a few novels out of the dozens that he published between the Depression and his death in 1970, and it seriously considers, with what MacShane terms “artistic delicacy and . . . psychological acuteness,” the limiting social and sexual values of our society.

As MacShane portrays him, O’Hara was a man whose essential gentleness was constantly at war with his need to prove himself. The son of a small-town doctor, he could not wait to reach the larger world of New York, where he gained experience as a newspaperman, and later Hollywood. But Pottsville, Pennsylvania, was not so easily left behind, and throughout the critical acclaim for Appointment in Samarra, the successful production of Pal Joey, and the popularity of Ten North Frederick and From the Terrace, O’Hara suffered from an overwhelming desire to be acceptable. In late years he succumbed to snobbery and self-promotion, and his reputation declined in direct proportion to his efforts, often half-formed, to put his conflicts into fiction.

MacShane is sympathetic but not indulgent toward these difficulties, just as he is toward O’Hara’s work. Admitting that O’Hara wrote too much and too quickly, he nevertheless makes a convincing case for the writer’s strengths: a genius for dialogue, a gift for characterization, and a deep compassion for individual pain. Despite his occasional lapses into easy generalizations and neologisms, MacShane does O’Hara a great service: he makes the books sound interesting, and worth reading again. Illustrations, notes, bibliography.