An enigma of twentieth-century literature–a writer accorded great importance in his time, if less than in his own mind–is here explored by one of our most versatile men of letters, a novelist and biographer ideally suited to the strange case of John O'Hara.
The accomplishments are undeniable: "the Region," the fictionalized coal-mining Pennsylvania of O'Hara's youth, serving his work much as Yoknapatawpha County did Faulkner's; an acute vernacular gift and a narrative frankness shocking in his day; an intimate, combative relationship with The New Yorker for over four decades; and a handful of books, from Appointment in Samarra to Sermons and Soda Water, that justify their author's ambitious claims. Moreover, he cut a wide swath through a Manhattan demimonde whose fierce friendships and bitter feuds–fueled by oceans of booze–were played out at such institutions as the Stork Club, “21,” and the Algonquin Round Table. But for all his best-sellers–one of which, Pal Joey, was a hit on Broadway, adapted by Rodgers and Hart–O’Hara had emerged in the wake of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, whose reputations buffeted his own. His preoccupations as a novelist of manners became dated as the world of speakeasies, the Social Register, Ivy League universities, and august clubs was inevitably undermined, while his prickly, status-obsessed outsider's personality failed to engage (and often enraged) changing fashions.
What Geoffrey Wolff reveals is not only the hugely complicated man in full but also his rightful place in our contemporary attention–a portrait of the artist that illuminates both the process of fiction and an era still vivid in our cultural history.
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Published August 26, 2003
Biographies & Memoirs.