Book review: The Art of Burning Bridges
San Francisco Chronicle, August 31, 2003
The title of this book by novelist, memoirist and biographer Geoffrey Wolff aptly presents the greatest challenge put to the author by his subject. John O'Hara, a Prohibition-era novelist and short-story writer, New Yorker contributor and librettist, was, hmm . . . how should one put it? A jerk.
Wolff, who admits as much early on in "The Art of Burning Bridges," performs the formidable task of endearing O'Hara to his readers and himself, armed with nothing but a host of superlative writing and interpretative skills.
A six-time novelist and the director of the graduate fiction program at the University of California at Irvine, Wolff has the tendency to see O'Hara's early life as a book to be analyzed for clues of the man he was to become. Wolff, being the son of a well-known doctor (who is also the subject of Wolff's book "The Duke of Deception") discloses this fact to his readers, as it is a similarity that he shares, along with a few others, with his subject.
John O'Hara was born Jan. 31, 1905, in Pottsville, the affluent commercial center of anthracite coal mining in eastern Pennsylvania and model for Gibbsville, the fictional town featured in O'Hara's opus, his first and most famous novel, "Appointment in Samarra."
The prodigal son of a status-conscious father, a respected doctor in his own right whose career was defined by heroic treatments of local mine workers, O'Hara had a privileged childhood, characterized by memberships in Pottsville's elite clubs and an ostensible superiority complex. As the eldest son of a demanding and, by today's standards, abusive man, O'Hara fell into a pattern of rebellion at an early age, which included indulgence in the verboten vices of drinking and smoking plus dropping out of one prep school after another.
In contrast to his lackluster academic performance, the O'Hara family's status obsession influenced the author's lifelong fixation on securing a Yale education, though when he died in his sleep in 1970 it was without ever having obtained a university degree.
As befits a writer who cut his teeth in Prohibition-era New York, where O'Hara counted Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Lorenz Hart (who with Richard Rodgers co-wrote the hit musical "Pal Joey" based on O'Hara's New Yorker column) among his drinking buddies, the author's social life took the shape of an alcoholic dandy's. His daily life included custom-tailored Brooks Brothers suits, appearances in gossip columns, flings with bohemian women and the occasional barroom brawl.
O'Hara did become a commercially successful writer, but the hot-and-cold response of critics and peers to his work kept him from entering the pantheon that his contemporaries Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and Hemingway inhabit to this day. That plus O'Hara's own feelings of disaffection allowed such disappointments, including his failure to secure the Pulitzer Prize for "Samarra" in 1934, to dictate his position as an outsider.
Wolff's style is thoroughly self-conscious, communicating openly to his readers how he arrived at the outlook with which he views his subject. And he is unafraid to make known his own history, when it is appropriate to do so. The choice is a good one. Unlike the omniscient biographer whose authoritative voice can present flawed interpretation as fact, Wolff ensures that nothing is hidden from readers and reminds them that they, too, are free to interpret the subject.
Thus, Wolff is set to express himself freely and displays a fluidity of tone, which can switch from an academician's to a clucking gossip's at a moment's notice. His default expression is one of displeasure. Like the child who must eat his Brussels sprouts before getting dessert, Wolff must sift through the refuse of O'Hara's chronic misbehavior before getting to anything that resembles redemption. This, understandably, makes Wolff rambunctious.
His impatience manifests itself in frequent outbursts and quips: "Whoa!," "Even worse!," "Unlikely," "Is it ever" and "I doubt it." But who can blame him? As Wolff's research tells it, O'Hara comes off as a poseur who lived beyond his means, couldn't wake up in time for jobs even at the most prestigious New York papers, alienated editors, nursed grudges, was a vain, thin-skinned, toxic drunk, and had been known to slap his women around.
The disputes over O'Hara's worth both as a person and as a writer come to be the central conflicts. Did his talent run deep or was it shallow?
O'Hara was best known for being a chronicler of his time, a savant when it came to the minute details of the material world, but particularly those objects that conveyed status and social standing (or lack thereof). His critics were divided into those who believed that a fiction of manners was in itself a commendable literary end and those who believed that such fiction was superficial and fleeting:
"[T]he choice] was between conviction and attitude, between writing what one truly felt at the moment, as Hemingway had it, rather than what one thought one ought to feel. O'Hara sometimes made too little of too much. . . . If this meant he was to be consigned by conventional-wisdom critics to the particular hell -- triviality -- where novelists of manners are indicted for their stylish dining, dancing, weekending, playing, and climbing, he'd live with that."
Wolff's strongest trait as a biographer is his ability to have impressions without passing judgment. On the question of O'Hara's character, Wolff shows himself as sensitive and pliant until the very last pages of the book. Although Wolff may have expressed astringent opinions on his subject, in the end he respectfully defers to those who have experienced O'Hara firsthand.
Wolff writes of his interview with the late William Maxwell, one of the few New Yorker editors with whom O'Hara had maintained a good relationship: "Though I didn't say as much, what I none-too-subtly meant was, What happened to John O'Hara? Maxwell stared at me, turned to his typewriter, and typed with bravura speed, 'It would be indecent to speculate.' " A few pages later, Wolff concludes with genuine humility, "Speculation then, is not only indecent, it is futile and unnecessary."
Because of Wolff's sincere desire to learn about his subject rather than condemn him (which, in O'Hara's case, would have been easy), the reader witnesses a rare and beautiful thing: The writer himself seems to evolve as his stance toward O'Hara softens from frustration to a peaceful understanding.