Thursday, December 5, 2013

Resurrecting a Minor Writer: BUtterfield 8 and The New York Stories by John O'Hara

BUtterfield 8 and The New York Stories
by John O'Hara
Review by Henry Gonshak

(Note: This review contains several plot spoilers.)

Does anyone read John O’Hara anymore? From the Great Depression in the 1930s to past the midpoint of the 20th century, O’Hara was one of the most popular writers in America, though his work was generally more appreciated by readers than critics. A short story writer as well as a novelist, O’Hara published more than two hundred stories in The New Yorker, which makes him the most widely published author in the history of the magazine. However, today O’Hara has lost much of his audience and his critical reputation has waned. While academic Harold Bloom included O’Hara’s first and best novel, Appointment in Samarra (1934), as part of “the Western canon” in Bloom’s book of the same name, Wright State University English Professor Martin Kich, for example, has carped, “O’Hara’s achievements have been so long and thoroughly denigrated that he is now considered a novelist of the second, or even the third, rank.”

But the publishers of Penguin Classics have concluded that the time is ripe for an O’Hara revival, and this year they’ve reprinted many of O’Hara’s books for their prestigious series. After reading two of them, BUtterfield 8 and The New York Stories, my conclusion is similar to Kich’s: in our era O’Hara comes across as a dated and minor writer who should not be classed with such brilliant contemporaries as Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner. While O’Hara does a decent job at depicting the manners and lifestyles of America in the last century, particularly its upper classes, he fails at the most important responsibilities of any fiction writer: creating engaging characters and a compelling, well-plotted story.

O’Hara was born in 1905 in the mid-sized town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania. He attended a ritzy local prep school, but when his father died in 1924 the family became too poor to enroll O’Hara in the college he yearned to attend, Yale–a loss that rankled the writer for the rest of his life, inspiring a sense of grievance reflected in his writings, which often depict frustrated social climbers. In his wonderful memoir about the magazine, Here at the New Yorker, Brendan Gill writes, “People used to make fun of the fact that O’Hara wanted so desperately to have gone to Yale, but it was never a joke to O’Hara. It seemed...that there wasn’t anything he didn’t know about in regard to college and prep school manners.” All his life, O’Hara longed in vain for an honorary degree from Yale.

Perhaps one reason critics abused O’Hara, and Yale refused him an honorary degree, is that, by all accounts, he was an incredibly unpleasant man. According to the contemporary writer Fran Lebowitz, who praises O’Hara as “the real F. Scott Fitzgerald,” the reason the author is underrated is “because every single person who knew him hated him.” O’Hara’s egomania is even reflected in the words he demanded be carved on his tombstone: “Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.” Gill comments, “From the far side of the grave, he remains self-defensive and overbearing. Better than anyone else? Not merely better than any other writer of fiction but better than any dramatist, any poet, any biographer, any historian? It is an astonishing claim.”

*     *     *

The protagonist of BUtterfield 8 is Gloria Wandrous, an 18-year-old, wealthy, New York society girl whose last name seems a play on “wondrous,” which Gloria certainly is, with her beauty and, particularly, irresistible charm to men of all ages. Gloria is notably promiscuous--having had numerous affairs with usually older married men, gotten three abortions, aroused any number of smitten lesbians (whose favors she consistently refuses), and once at a party even engaged in group sex with her then-boyfriend, another woman and her lover, while her fellow party-goers looked on. Although the novel was published in 1932 during the Great Depression, which is also its setting, Gloria seems more a product of the preceding decade, the raucous “Jazz Age” of the 1920s, in which young women known as “flappers” sported bobbed hair and short skirts, and engaged in “free love,” which sharply distinguished them from their prudish sisters from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In the novel’s great opening scene, Gloria awakes one morning alone in the posh Manhattan apartment of a rich, married businessman, Weston Liggett, whom she’d slept with the night before while his wife was conveniently absent. Because Liggett had torn Gloria’s dress and stockings while in the throes of primal passion, the young woman has nothing to wear, so she cavalierly rifles through the clothes closets of Liggett’s wife, draping herself in one of Mrs. Liggett’s elegant fur coats, which causes Liggett to spend much of the novel desperately trying to retrieve his wife’s garment. BUtterfield 8 was a bestseller when it first appeared, and no doubt Gloria’s unbridled sexuality accounted for much of the book’s appeal. But today, when female sexuality is much less demonized, Gloria’s sexual escapades probably strike most readers as considerably less risque than when the book was first published.

If O’Hara had turned Gloria into a credible and appealing character, the fact that she seems much tamer today than she appeared to previous readers wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. But Gloria comes across as a stick figure, and a rather tedious one at that. Basically, she is a spoiled rich girl, pampered by her indulgent parents. She lives for sex and fashion and heavy drinking, and seems to have never had a deep thought cross her mind. It’s nearly impossible for readers to care about her. As a result, when she dies at the novel’s end in an accident aboard a cruise ship, there is little sense of real tragedy, even though her death is shadowed by the irony that Gloria has just decided to marry the divorced Liggett and put her wild lifestyle behind her. Moreover, despite the fact that the couple decide to wed, there is little that is meaningful or substantial in their relationship. The businessman’s only response after he sees Gloria churned to pieces by the ship’s wheel, after she falls overboard, is a muttered, “There was nothing I could do.” Afterward, rather than mourning Gloria or confessing his love for her to the world, Liggett’s principal action is to embark on a quest to retrieve his ex-wife’s coat. In general, Liggett and Gloria’s torrid romance seems based more on mutual lust than any more profound emotion. Even had they wed, it seems unlike that their marriage would have lasted once the passion had cooled.

The only sympathetic character in BUtterfield 8 is Gloria’s platonic friend, Eddie, at whose Greenwich Village apartment the young woman appears after her night with Liggett. An impoverished script-writer, with a warm, supportive fiancee, Eddie is the one character who seems to honestly like Gloria for herself rather than her voluptuous body, and to truly understand her. When Liggett appears at Eddie’s apartment in search of his wife’s coat in the aftermath of Gloria’s death, Eddie is appalled by the businessman’s apparent indifference to his lover’s demise, telling him, “Listen, did you come here about that God damn coat? Because if you did, there it is. Take it and stick it. I don’t want you coming here with a long face and all you’re worried about is are you going to get mixed up in a public scandal.” O’Hara never clarifies why Gloria and Eddie never have a romance, but one can speculate that Eddie’s poverty clashes with Gloria’s unabashed gold-digging. In any event, because Eddie is a secondary figure, his appealing personality is merely an exception to O’Hara general lack of interest in creating enthralling, three-dimensional characters.

I’ve suggested that the climax of the novel, ending in Gloria’s violent death, is a botch. Even Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, admits in his otherwise fawning introduction that BUtterfield 8 has a “shaky ending.” Apparently, after writing a digressive, meandering novel, O’Hara decided he had to insert some drama that wrapped up the story, so he chose to bump Gloria off. As a result, the conclusion has a deus ex machina quality. Moreover, it’s plausible that the author, by killing his protagonist, is punishing her for her promiscuity, as if Gloria’s death is divinely decreed, which gives the book a conventionality that conflicts with the author’s alleged sympathy for women who flaunt their sexuality.

In 1960, BUtterfield 8 was made into a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor as Gloria, Laurence Harvey as Liggett, and the torch singer Eddie Fisher as Eddie. Taylor won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance, though she always maintained that the only reason the academy had given her the Oscar (her first) was because she fell deathly ill right after the shooting, and Hollywood wanted to reward her for her suffering. Another bit of behind the scenes gossip: during the filming Taylor and Fisher fell in love, and Taylor wound up stealing Fisher away from his then wife, Debbie Reynolds, and eventually marrying him. (Five years later, the much-married Taylor would dump Fisher for Richard Burton.) The film of BUtterfield 8 is worth seeing simply for Taylor’s luminous performance. Just glimpsing Taylor in the movie’s opening scene (copied from the book) in a full-length fur coat and not much else is worth the price of admission. But the film of BUtterfield 8 suffers from many of the same problems that plague the novel–principally, that female promiscuity today seems a less tantalizing topic than it did in the past. I appreciated, though, that the filmmakers changed Gloria’s economic status from wealthy to middle class. As a result, Gloria’s decision to sleep around, almost invariably with rich older men, seems tied to her social climbing as well as her sex drive. The movie also changes O’Hara’s ending; in both versions, Gloria dies, but in the film she is killed in a car crash, as she speeds from the scene of a tortured rendezvous with Liggett, having vowed to end their affair, while Liggett chases her desperately in his own car. This ending is less lurid than O’Hara’s, but both conclusions suffer from the same problem–they’re a contrived, convenient way to wrap up the story with a dramatic flourish. In his introduction, Stein claims that the movie turns Gloria into a prostitute, but that wasn’t my impression; she just seems a young woman with a vigorous sex drive and a flagrant disregard for societal morality, as she is in the book.

*     *     *

Penguin Classics has also just published The New York Stories in a handsome new edition which reprints all the stories O’Hara penned about the Big Apple, where he moved as a young man. The stories span the full length of O’Hara’s career, from the early 1930s to the early 1970s, the most recent published posthumously. The later stories tend to be longer and more digressive than the earlier ones, which are often mere sketches only a few pages long. But, like BUtterfield 8, they often focus on the city’s upper-crust–the well-heeled businessmen, the society wives, the spoiled children. However, the collection extends O’Hara’s range by also featuring working-class characters: a barber, a poorly paid secretary, a small-time crook, even a black man who works in a car wash. Many of the tales also take place in the fevered and glamorous world of Broadway, with characters who are playwrights and directors and producers, and who sometimes abandon New York for the allure of Hollywood. O’Hara knew New York’s theatrical world well; his 1940 epistolary novel, Pal Joey, was turned into a popular Broadway musical, and several of his other works were also made into plays.

In Here at the New Yorker, Brendan Gill, who worked with O’Hara at the magazine, ranks him as “among the greatest short-story writers in English, or in any other language,” and credits him with helping “to invent what the world came to call the New Yorker short story.” I see O’Hara’s influence on later New Yorker stories, but, unlike Gill, I find that influence harmful. The classic New Yorker story can be classified as belonging to the “Nothing Ever Happens” school of literature. That is, the stories tend to eschew dramatic action, replacing plot-driven fiction with slice-of-life pieces that usually culminate in some subtle, muted epiphany on the part of the protagonist. So often, after reading a New Yorker story (especially those published after O’Hara’s death and up to the late 1990s), I find myself wondering, “What the hell was that all about?” Often, the stories don’t conclude so much as simply end. I had an identical reaction with most of O’Hara’s New York Stories. They usually seem less full-bodied short stories–with the traditional story’s stock trajectory, from exposition to rising action to climax to denouement–than they do vignettes or character sketches, with conclusions so obscure they leave the reader flummoxed. Steven Goldleaf, the editor of this collection, confesses in his introduction that “O’Hara’s endings...sometimes puzzle readers,” because nearly all share “an elliptical quality.” O’Hara himself was aware of his stories’ cryptic natures. In a 1936 letter, O’Hara said of his New Yorker stories, “I almost include a plea to the editors that if they can understand them, please to let me in on the secret.” In one story, “It’s Mental Work,” about a bartender, when something actually happens–namely, a character dies–it comes as a breath of fresh air.

In place of a compelling and comprehensible plot, O’Hara usually substitutes protracted dialogue. Many critics have commented on O’Hara’s purported gift for writing dialogue. In the Foreword to the collection, the distinguished novelist E.L. Doctorow praises “O’Hara’s remarkable ear for American speech.” It’s true that O’Hara, after regrettably experimenting in his early stories with dialect, afterward wrote dialogue that was generally clear and fluid and mimetic. But O’Hara either forgot or ignored the literary rule that dialogue must further the narrative, either by developing a character or propelling the plot. In contrast, O’Hara’s dialogue often seems inserted purely for its own sake. His characters tend to talk and talk and talk ad nauseam.

In a related problem, O’Hara often seems more interested in getting the details of his story right–the appearance of his characters, the way they dress, the rooms and buildings in which they reside–than he does in telling a compelling story. One description, of a posh Manhattan penthouse, will suffice as an example: “The sitting-room is, as the decorators used to say, busy, with a profusion of jade, Meissen, cameo, Josiah Wedgwood, bell pulls, mirrors of all sizes, cloisonne, clusters of miniatures, porcelain snuff boxes, sterling ash trays, a Lalique clock that stopped running in 1951, a crystal candelabrum with too short candles, and a rather startling portrait-in-oils.” My first reaction after reading this passage was, “Why are you telling me all this?”

I did like a few stories. My favorite was “The Private People,” a longer and later story that features Jack Dorney, a popular Broadway actor wed to a chronic alcoholic; eventually, the wife escapes their dysfunctional marriage and flees to California, turning up at a rather seedy health spa, where she is apparently “drying out.” Dorney and a friend track her down and insist on transferring her to a more reputable detox center, run by a relative of the actor–a plan to which Dorney’s wife reluctantly agrees. The best thing about “The Private People” is the harrowing portrait O’Hara draws of alcoholism, which seems utterly authentic. The story hauntingly concludes with the couple reunited but far from happy:
They returned to New York, and they are there now. He takes his walk to Sixtieth Street and puts in the time until evening. She is drunk at seven o’clock, and he is alone with the TV and his reading until past midnight. He knows that when he has turned out his light she waits a little while and goes to the sitting-room and has some more to drink. Back in her bedroom she leaves the light on all night long. She cannot sleep unless the light is on. Oh, it is not a very bright light.
An alcoholic himself, O’Hara knew whereof he spoke. But a handful of good stories does not a successful collection make.

I have one last complaint about The New York Stories–namely, the book’s haphazard organization. Goldleaf has decided simply to arrange the stories alphabetically by title. He justifies this procedure by noting in his introduction that O’Hara himself chose to arrange his final five collections, from 1962 to 1969, in this manner. But just because O’Hara did it doesn’t make it a good idea. The result of Goldleaf’s approach is that the arrangement of the stories proves arbitrary. If one story resonates with another that it precedes or follows, the effect is purely coincidental. It would have made more sense to organize the stories chronologically by publication date, which would have enabled the reader to trace the trajectory of O’Hara’s career, or to group them by theme or subject. The result of the book’s random arrangement is to make the stories seem even more “elliptical” than they would be if conventionally organized.

All in all, in regard to John O’Hara, I find myself agreeing with the judgment of New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani that O’Hara was a “minor writer” and a “well-known lout.” There’s surely no harm in Penguin Classics resurrecting much of the author’s best-known work for a new audience, but the endeavor hardly seems worth all the energy that’s been expended.

Henry Gonshak is the Rose and Anna Busch Endowed Professor of English at Montana Tech. His writings have appeared in three book collections and a variety of publications, including The Journal of American Culture, Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review and Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. He also writes a monthly books column, “The Reading Life,” for The Montana Standard.

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