The great mystery about John O’Hara seems to revolve around why he’s not more widely read. Just citing his fairly odious personality seems insufficient: O’Hara was unpleasant when sober and extremely unpleasant when drunk, which was a great deal of the time, but you can say that about a lot of writers of the pre-war generation, when everybody drank because, well, that’s what writers did.
But O’Hara wrote strong and tough and true. And memorable. Case in point, the new Penguin Classics editions of O’Hara’s “The New York Stories,” and “Butterfield 8.” The latter was always regarded as something of a potboiler from O’Hara’s early period – it was published in 1935 – and was more or less forgotten until it was made into a mediocre movie with Elizabeth Taylor in 1960 that was nevertheless a huge hit.
It’s more than a potboiler, although it’s far from “Appointment in Samarra.” But “The New York Stories” is a real gem, a new collection of stories whose composition stretched over 40 years, but whose setting is always New York, or Brooklyn.
O’Hara was strictly a realist, whose taste ran to the bitter more than the sweet. Scott Fitzgerald’s silky prose gave a romantic sheen to stories that would have been brutal had they been written by O’Hara, whose writing was sharp and evocative, with rarely a wasted word. As E.L. Doctorow notes in his introduction, he adopted Hemingway’s method of never directly stating what the motivating force of the story actually was.
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The difference between the two writers is that there’s always a sense of pity in Hemingway that’s missing in O’Hara, who would have made a good attorney – assuming he could always have been the prosecutor.
“The New York Stories” costs $17, and there’s not a better buy between soft covers.