These Vagabond Blues: ‘John O’Hara’s The New York Stories’

John O’Hara is enjoying a comfortable resurgence in fame. The popularity of shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire has stimulated a hunger for knowing more about American life during the mid-20th century. Like his contemporaries, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O’Hara chronicled that life. But his view of people was decidedly more brittle and uncompromising. There’s no whiff of reluctant heroism in O’Hara’s men and women—no Nick Adams, no Robert Jordan, no Jay Gatsby, no Dick Diver. He’d lived in New York City too long to have any illusions about people and their motives.

O’Hara was creature of his environment, of the hustling trade-talk of the 7th Avenue delis, the rainy nighttime streets of Broadway and Times Square of press agents, columnists and newspapermen, and Upper East Side apartments either lit with the parties of the semi-famous, sloshed and self-loathing, or dim and filled with the palpable air of the loneliness of their tenants. The modern-day consciousness of New York City as we know it, in everything from Dorothy Parker, Broadway Danny Rose and Sex in the City originates in the pages of O’Hara’s short stories.

Penguin’s new edition, a sprinkling of 32 of O’Hara’s New York stories written from the ’40s to the early ‘70s, is a must-have for any O’Hara fan. A remarkable, gripping Foreword by E.L. Doctorow sheds light on various neglected aspects of the writer’s fiction, particularly O’Hara the reluctant sentimentalist. “He is a writer who has made it his business to know things and likes to tell you what he knows,” says Doctorow.

His rage and resentment focused on the literary establishment’s lack of regard for his achievement… There is a story about him that when, in 1964, he received the prestigious Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he stood before that assembly, speaking bitterly of the critical vilification he had all his life until that moment endured, and broke down, weeping.

Over the course of 360 pages, we get the full scope of O’Hara’s prowess as a storyteller and his rare ability to glean emotion out of streamlined descriptive detail, atmospheric dialogue and peerless character development. At moments, O’Hara is the literary version of an Edward Hopper, and that particular tough, yet vulnerable sensibility shines through.

Several of the strongest stories in the collection deal with people in show business. Actors, screenwriters, and producers, many of whom are not quite washed-up, but who have faced enough rejections over the years to have tasted that bitter tang of lost fame. Almost all of them are alcoholics; Some are closeted and nurture their sense of denial while others, in an effort to seem tough, playfully wallow in their addiction.

The stories are not arranged in chronological, but rather, alphabetical order so that a story with a distinctly Depression-era feel written in the late ’30s is placed next to a story that references Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in the late ‘60s. The effect can be a little jarring, but fortunately O’Hara’s tone remains consistent throughout.

He’s too clever and skilled of a writer to judge his characters, and he often crafts a story out of dialogue so that we come to a conclusion on our own. Before he took up fiction, O’Hara worked as a journalist, and his ear for conversation and reliance on facts is what sets the pace for many of the stories.

The showbiz stories, like “The Assistant”, “At the Cothurnos Club”, “Call Me, Call Me”, “Can I Stay Here”m “First Day in Town” and “John Barton Rosedale, Actors’ Actor”, are superb character studies. You can almost hear the dialogue spoken aloud by Frederic March or Susan Hayward over a cocktail.

In “The Assistant” (1965), the middle-aged ex-jazz singer Maggie Muldoon is on a date with a mild mannered promoter and after a few too many drinks she begins to talk about her family:

My grandfather was a lush, and my old man was a strict temperance man, but I take after my grandfather. He used to hold up a glass of whiskey in front of him and smile at it and say, ‘My assistant.’ He always called it his assistant. So do I, but people don’t know what I’m talking about… I don’t know what I’d do without my assistant.

It’s the kind of description of happiness and pain that can only be said by someone who’s experienced it himself—someone who’s hovering precariously between the bright lights and the bottom of an empty bottle.

“First Day in Town”, (1961) follows the relentless day-long networking attempts of Nick Orlando, a famous Italian-American actor sliding into the C-list, and his relationship with a brassy young starlet, who have both, the narrator slyly admits, changed their names (“Our names were too long. Too many c’s in ‘em”). In discussing a new play the young woman plays to star in, the conversation veers into unexpected dark humor:

“The name of the play is ‘A Pride of Lions.’ ” she said, waving a script.

“Who wrote it?”

“You never heard of him. But you will. He’s a young Pakistani, or he was. He hung himself two years ago at Cambridge University, in England.”

“Well, that way you’re not gonna have any author-trouble at rehearsal.”

That unforeseen element of surprise is one of the strongest qualities to some of the memorable stories, notably “Ellie” (1946) and “A Phase of Life” (1947), the best story in the entire collection, about a financially-strapped young couple and their surprising, slightly sinister way of entertaining their guests. Each story has the impact of a grenade going off. The revelation and pay-off often hits you in ways you never expect.

O’Hara’s The New York Stories is a comprehensive, absorbing, thoroughly entertaining collection of the Master’s short fiction. No O’Hara fan can be without it. If you want to know more about the mystery behind the man that created Appointment in Samarra, BUtterfield 8 and Pal Joey and some of the most famous stories of tragic drunks, faded stars and misunderstood dreamers, this book is a good place to start.

RATING 10 / 10