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Posts Tagged ‘John O’Hara’

Party Line

April 7, 2015 | by


Not Nabokov’s kind of place.

Reading about the parties of decades past, it sometimes seems they were all similar, and all awful—or at least that they had an intolerably high jerk quotient. Think of the celebrations in Cheever novels, or O’Hara stories: full of jerks, everyone drunk and uncouth and parochial.

It should come as no shock that Vladimir Nabokov took a jaundiced view of the midcentury American party. In fact, were I some hapless Wellesley or Ithaca hostess, you couldn’t have paid me enough to invite him to a dinner or sherry hour, even after he became a literary sensation. Imagine the appraisal you’d be in for—his curled lip, his chilly politeness, his scathing mental commentary, his careful evasion of the menu’s vulgarities. For your trouble, you’d be caricatured, at best, as some sort of composite Charlotte Haze–esque grotesque, fawning over his manners and dripping with self-assured provincialism. And that would be the good outcome. It’s hard to think of someone you’d want less at a midcentury faculty tea, save maybe a seething Shirley Jackson. 

The following comes from Nabokov’s 1951 story “The Vane Sisters.” Read More »

Staff Picks: Birthdays, Bluegrass, Baked Alaska

January 9, 2015 | by


From the first-edition cover of Appointment in Samarra.

Cold, biting January made me reach for Simon Van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness. This deceptively slim novel transcends time and geography to explore the lives of six unwittingly connected strangers, each rendered with stunning incisiveness and warmth. (If Raymond Chandler had swapped gin for chamomile tea he might have written some of Van Booy’s sentences.) However, the prose is so rich—so resonant—it’s easy to miss the real treat on offer: an exceptionally compassionate lens through which to view the world. Search no more. This is that book, the one you carry through the midwinter doldrums toward spring. —Emilia Murphy 

Over Christmas I read Is He Popenjoy?, Anthony Trollope’s tale of a rich girl who marries an impoverished Lord and finds herself in the middle of a battle over his inheritance. This is late, minor Trollope (he wrote forty-seven novels altogether), but Trollope is one of those writers in whom minorness and greatness are hard to tell apart. He makes everything look so easy. His experiments are hidden in plain view. So is his special brand of moral skepticism. For Trollope, every character is the hero of his own story, or the heroine; every character thinks he or she has to deal with villains (sociopaths, we’d say). From time to time every character is right. Or may be. But the most powerful force in Trollope’s fiction is not good or evil, but group dynamics, the ever-shifting relations between family members and friends. Among other things, Is He Popenjoy? is the best novel I have ever read about in-laws and how to get along with them. For the moment, I'm so deep under its spell I wouldn’t trade it for Anna Karenina. —Lorin Stein

Every year around the holidays, I try to fill in one of the gaps in my knowledge of the canon. When you’re revisiting classics, I’ve found, it’s always good to seek out the ones that people hated when they were first published—so I took up John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, which Sinclair Lewis called “nothing but infantilism—the erotic visions of a hobbledehoy behind the barn.” And what visions they are! Sex and class are O’Hara’s great subjects, and in Appointment—wherein a rich, high-society guy ruins himself for no good reason, really, except that the straitjacket of Depression-era life demands it—he treats them with a candor that most novelists still can’t muster eighty years later. He’s known, rightly, for his dialogue, but there’s a kind of O’Hara sentence, precise but faintly ostentatious, that sounds utterly American to me. “The festive board now groaned under the Baked Alaska,” for instance. Or: “Frank Gorman, Georgetown, and Dwight Ross, Yale, had fought, cried, and kissed after an argument about what the team Gorman had not made would have done to the team Ross was substitute halfback on.” —Dan Piepenbring
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September 16, 2013 | by


Tonight at the Powerhouse Arena: Lawrence Block, Chip McGrath, and Lorin Stein on John O’Hara, moderated by Steven Goldleaf. See you there



What We’re Loving: Gas Stations, New York Stories, The Room

September 13, 2013 | by


Forty-three years after his death, John O’Hara still holds the record for the most stories published in The New Yorker (247), a record all the more impressive when you consider that he spent a decade boycotting that magazine over a negative review. Wherever he published, one of  O’Hara’s favorite subjects was New York City. He specialized in speakeasies, but he also took an interest in gentlemen’s clubs, Park Avenue apartments, dressing rooms, tenements—like Balzac, he aimed at a full panorama, in his case of the years before World War II. Now O’Hara’s New York stories have a volume of their own, thanks to the scholar Steven Goldleaf. My favorite is “Bread Alone,” about a father and son at a ballgame. Something tells me that it inspired the first chapter of Underworld. At least, it would be a worthy inspiration. I read The New York Stories as homework (Goldleaf and I will be discussing O’Hara this coming Monday with the novelist Lawrence Block) but it was a labor of love. —Lorin Stein

“Imagine a movie so incomprehensible that you find yourself compelled to watch it over and over again. You become desperate to learn how (if) on earth it was conceived: Who made it, and for what purpose?” These words could only refer to The Room, a cult phenomenon frequently described as the Citizen Kane of bad films; they come from The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, by Greg Sestero and the peerless Tom Bissell. Sestero was coerced into participating in the project by its enigmatic, megalomaniacal writer-director-star, Tommy Wiseau, and served as reluctant intern, cameraman, casting director, and, ultimately, costar (“Mark,” to the initiated.) The book is hilarious, and the stories behind the making of The Room are even more bizarre than one might expect; truly, like the film itself, they must be seen to be believed. —Sadie Stein Read More »


What We’re Loving: Prohibition, Bourbon, Coffee

December 14, 2012 | by

When I asked my college advisor how I could learn to write dialogue like Raymond Carver, he told me to study a real master: John O’Hara. Naturally this kept me from reading O’Hara's novels for twenty years. Then last week I picked up Butterfield 8, the 1935 story of a young woman who steals a fur coat after a one-night stand. Rarely has such a good book had such a bad ending. If not for the last ten pages, you’d have to call it a great book, with an unforgettable heroine, frank insights into sex and sexual abuse, a vivid picture of New York during Prohibition, and panning shots that prefigure William Gaddis. (Yes, great dialogue too.) —Lorin Stein

At a library sale, I found a box set of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy in pristine condition. The spines weren’t even broken on the slim, stiff paperbacks, and I wondered whether the previous owner had even read them. But that’s all I’ve been doing the past week, and I’m ready to cast aside familial obligations, work responsibilities, holiday demands, and whatnot if they come between me and these books. —Nicole Rudick

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Anthony Giardina on ‘Norumbega Park’

February 14, 2012 | by

In five novels and a collection of short stories, Anthony Giardina has written about the conflicts at the intersection of social class, family, and sexuality. Recent History explores the anxieties of a young man whose parents get divorced when his father announces he’s gay; in White Guys, a horrific murder in Boston forces old friends to consider their assumptions about where they belong in the social hierarchy. His new novel, Norumbega Park, traces the lives of the four members of an Italian-American family in Massachusetts over forty years. Richie, the patriarch, is seized by an urge to purchase a traditional house in the titular town, setting in motion a new life for his family. His son Jack breezes through high school on his charm, then runs into trouble when he moves to New York instead of going to college. Joannie, Jack’s sister, joins a convent, and her mother, Stella, struggles with that choice, as well as with her own encroaching mortality. I spoke with Giardina by e-mail about the work and experience that went into creating the new book.

Your fiction has been credited with “charting the move from the working class to the gilded suburbs.” What draws you to this story?

I was a witness, as a young boy, to my father’s desire to move us up, in our case from a working-class neighborhood to a brand-new neighborhood of houses that men built for themselves—my father and his cronies, Italian-American working-class guys who had made some money. They literally blasted into this hill in Waltham, Massachusetts, this area that had just been woods, and they built these houses that I can see now were just basic split-level structures but that seemed to me kind of magical. It wasn’t just houses these guys were building, it was a whole neighborhood they considered “exclusive.” It made them all act differently. They gave parties for themselves—they dressed up, the women wore gowns. And it was maybe the first complex social observation I was able to make, to watch a group of men and women consciously attempt to reinvent themselves.

Later, of course, I was able to see that this was a huge theme in American fiction, but before I knew it as literature, I had seen it in its raw form, and it left me with a vivid sense that this is how class works in America—that assumption of a new identity based on where you live, and how well you’ve done.

I’ve never wanted to do that for myself. I live in a modest house, and I like to assume a suburban identity where I’m just one of the neighborhood guys. Read More »