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Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

November 16, 2015 | by

John O’Hara’s Pal Joey remains an exemplar of a rare form: the epistolary novella.

From Robert Jonas’s cover for an early paperback edition of Pal Joey, ca. 1946.

Ever see the movie? Well, do yourself a favor and don’t. You should pardon me for bringing this up right off the bat, but it’s so beyond being a mere stinkeroo that I get ahead of myself and must apologize. But you can trust me; I shall get back to it later.

It’s hard not to start sounding like Joey Evans after listening to him come up off the pages of John O’Hara’s novella. In fact, even if you’re holding paper and ink, Pal Joey is always an “audio book” in some other, fundamental sense of the term. The osmotic nature of Joey’s voice affects even the other characters. Vera—the rich older woman whom O’Hara added to the theatrical adaptation—says, in a moment of amazed exasperation: “Good God, I’m getting to talk like you.”

Joey’s is an American voice from the second act of the American century, a time when the country’s wisecracks and slang, thanks to movies and even to books, wrapped themselves around the thoughts and vocal cords of half the world. O’Hara had the upwardly mobile luck to be in possession of the best ear anybody had for catching and transmitting the national lingo.

Frank MacShane, one of the author’s biographers, explains that the first Pal Joey story, published in The New Yorker on October 22, 1938, got written after O’Hara went off on “a two‐day bender” instead of the stretch of work he’d pledged to his wife: Read More »

The Language of Men

April 16, 2012 | by

The New York Times made its first mention of Edgar Rice Burroughs on June 14, 1914, when the paper’s Book Review included Tarzan of the Apes among “One Hundred Books for Summer Reading.” Having asked publishers to supply the hundred titles, the Review editors did “not pretend to say what consideration has inspired each . . . particular selection”—a note of caution that veers toward alarm in the editors’ capsule assessment of Burroughs’s recent creation: “The author has evidently tried to see how far he could go without exceeding the limits of possibility.” The plot description that followed made it clear that, “possibility” aside, plausibility had certainly been breached:

Lord Greystoke and his wife are marooned on the African jungle coast, build a cabin, and become accustomed to the wild life there. A son is born and the mother dies. A herd of giant apes invade the cabin, kill Lord Greystoke, take away the child, and rear it as their own. When the child has become a man he possesses the habits, the language, and the great strength of the apes. One day a white woman is put ashore from a ship, and the ape man falls in love with her, and rescues her from many perils. He also plays the part of instructor to a scientific expedition. The scene then shifts to Wisconsin, where the heroine is rescued from more perils. Meanwhile the ape man has been educated in the culture of his kind, and he finally proves that he has a soul as well as superhuman strength.

Burroughs was surely unfazed by this. Read More »