A Writer Writes a Writer’s Life: Awful O’Hara in Human Scale

The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O’Hara by Geoffrey Wolff. Alfred A. Knopf, 373 pages, $30

He was truculent and resentful. A heavy drinker with a short-fuse temper. A name-dropper. An egomaniac who had mastered the art of the awful first impression. Easily wounded, a snob and a social climber, he was sometimes cruel, envious, a bully, and violent to women as well as to men. His friend Robert Benchley once said to him, after a drunken tussle in a bar, “You’re a shit and everybody knows you’re a shit …. You were born a shit just as some people were born with blue eyes …. ” “I wish I could take a vacation from myself,” he once wrote in a letter to an old friend. He was also a good talker and, better, a good listener. Capable of great tenderness (especially to his daughter, Wylie), his ability to understand the inner life of his female characters was admired by such writers as Dorothy Parker (his lifelong champion) and Fran Lebowitz. Gifted in his ability to notice and set down with unerring accuracy the most minute details revealing the exact social standing of his subjects, he turned out, year after year, some of the best short stories of his time.

John O’Hara was in his day a hugely successful and renowned writer, especially in the 1950’s and 60’s. He won the National Book Award for Ten North Frederick , his novels and short-story collections regularly rode the best-seller lists, and some of his works were turned into Hollywood movies. He wrote for magazines ranging from The New Yorker to Vanity Fair . His first two books, the novels Appointment in Samarra (1934) and Butterfield 8 (1935), remain touchstones of 20th-century American fiction.

And yet much of his considerable body of work is now out-of-print. Ignored in the college curricula (his own fault-in his lifetime, he wouldn’t allow his stories to be anthologized for fear of cannibalizing his book sales), he’s relegated to museum status, along with his prize-laden contemporaries James Gould Cozzens and John P. Marquand, also big sellers in their day. He’s often dismissed as a windy novelist of manners, a third-rate Edith Wharton. His snobbish concerns about class, Ivy League fraternities, tailors and club memberships and his sheer weightless prolixity have consigned him to cardboard boxes at yard sales and dusty hard-to-reach shelves in rented summer houses.

He was never awarded the Nobel Prize he so desperately, and unceasingly, claimed to deserve. (Today, he might be just as aggressively pursuing the Library of America, which seems to be even more ardently coveted by American writers than the Nobel Prize, and in which O’Hara’s old friend and rival, James Thurber, has been enshrined-wouldn’t O’Hara be raging about that?) As if to offset his commercial success, he was mercilessly pummeled by critics throughout his entire career-they blackballed him as effectively as Yale did when faced with his unrelenting demand that he be given an honorary degree. Even his private life offered tragic details beyond the usual divorces and deaths. His father’s last words were about him: “Poor John.”

This is great fodder for any student of American literature or, for that matter, any amateur psychiatrist, and O’Hara’s bones have been picked over more than once before. Now Geoffrey Wolff, himself a distinguished novelist as well as a biographer (of Harry Crosby and of his own father-more on that in a moment), has decided, for his own very particular reasons, to take a look at the man and set down his life in a biography unlike any I’ve ever read.

Mr. Wolff makes various attempts to explain his aims. First, he intended “to … restore to John O’Hara’s complicated history those human and occupational particulars that make him a writer worthy of attention and … understanding …. ” Also: “I was puzzled by a recurring inconsistency between the summary judgments of his character by strangers and the affectionate testimonials of his friends.” And, finally: “I assumed … that I knew what made him tick even before I had held to my ear the intricate clockwork that is any human character.” Why? Because of the unusual coincidences of background, history and even personal minutia that seemed to link Mr. Wolff’s Jewish father (the subject of his famous book, The Duke of Deception ) with the Catholic O’Hara: Both were sons of doctors and lifelong captives of the imagined allure of Yale; both were angry Anglophilic drinkers with bad teeth; both owned MG TC’s and blackthorn walking sticks-and so on.

Did all this help Mr. Wolff to understand O’Hara? No. He admits it up front. But he does hunt aggressively for his subject and present a comprehensive reading of O’Hara’s prose. (He even includes an entire story by O’Hara, “How Can I Tell You?”) He frankly confesses to bafflement about, and even disinterest in, motivation; disregards exactitude and day-by-day detail; and delivers an exciting, provocative, sometimes puzzling and always compulsively readable account of a man and his life.

This is no straightforward narrative biography: We’re more than halfway through the book before we get to World War II, which O’Hara, to his shame, sat out owing to various medical ailments, and during which he collaborated with Larry Hart on the libretto for the musical version of O’Hara’s Pal Joey stories. (Mr. Wolff, in a characteristic throwaway, writes that O’Hara and Hart’s hangovers gave them “eyes like pissholes in the snow.”)

The leisurely pace allows us to learn all about O’Hara’s birth in and rancid lifelong relationship with the town of Pottsville, Penn., which Mr. Wolff calls “scuffed” and “eroded”-“it is difficult to imagine how such a place could have inspired anything”-and which O’Hara described in a letter to his mentor and friend, Walter S. Farquhar, as “that dry-fucked excrescence on Sharp Mountain.” It also allows for a generous account of O’Hara’s arrival in New York City in 1928; his tumultuous employment history with numerous newspapers (he never could work for anyone for very long, either because he hated them or because they came to hate him, or both); his first involvement with The New Yorker , which was to publish, as well as turn down, some of his greatest stories; and his dream breakthrough when Appointment in Samarra -his first published novel, but not his first try at novel-writing-became a sensation. Mr. Wolff’s account of his friendships and his publishing history is interesting, though not new. But all the while, he’s getting at O’Hara’s genesis, his development, his being as a writer-and this is where Mr. Wolff takes the left turn that I found so, well, thrilling in reading this book.

Melville, Keats, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, among others, elbow their way into this story, and so does

Mr. Wolff himself. Into his narrative, he throws scenes-especially unpleasant ones-from his own writing life: the involuntary end of his work as a book reviewer at Esquire ; how an editor’s rejection feels; the difficulty of revising a novel; how he felt once the seduction of Hollywood revealed its hollow, rotten core; how using a real place as a setting for a fictional work can provoke rage (“I have felt the lash of parochial resentment”). And his asides and exclamations, whether in his own or in others’ voices, jump into the text throughout, like an athlete muttering exhortations to himself. “Ho ho, and fat chance.” “Fuck him anyway.” “Say what?” “Good god!” “Nah.” “Whoa!” ” Fuck you .”

What a relief it is to read a book about a writer, written by another writer, that’s presented so directly and emotionally. No scholarly pretension, no pedantic urge to classify, stuff and mummify. Mr. Wolff’s ambivalence about O’Hara, his clear admiration for much of the writing, his admission that “sometimes I just can’t like the man,” his curiosity about what he calls the major mystery of O’Hara’s personality (namely, “why so many men and women found it pleasing to be in his company”)-all this makes The Art of Burning Bridges a true and human exploration of a good, complex, sometimes overly admired and overly neglected writer’s life.

“Good writers deserve to be remembered,” William Maxwell, O’Hara’s editor at The New Yorker , said to Mr. Wolff when he agreed to an interview for this biography. Mr. Wolff has written a remembrance that’s given me the greatest kind of anticipatory joy a reader can have: With this odd, provocative, immensely thoughtful and illuminating account of a nearly forgotten toiler on Grub Street, he has sent me back to O’Hara’s books with a renewed and refreshed interest.

André Bernard is vice president and publisher of Harcourt.