Tuesday, November 24, 2020

This Day in Literary History (O’Hara Returns to Short Fiction in ‘Sermons and Soda-Water’)

Nov. 24, 1960—Eleven years after angrily abandoning short fiction after a negative review in the principal outlet for his work, The New Yorker, John O’Hara marked his return to the form that was his strength (and to the magazine’s fold) with a boxed set of three novellas, Sermons and Soda-Water.

From his first (and usually considered best) novel, Appointment in Samarra, in 1934, O’Hara had brought an excellent ear for dialogue and an encyclopedic knowledge of his characters that helped him depict class distinctions with pinpoint accuracy. But a decade’s departure from the short story brought with it new strengths: a renewed commitment to “get it all down on paper while I can,” a greater desire to depict the social circumstances of his time for a new generation, and an empathy enhanced by the losses and misfortunes of friends.

The collection’s title, derived from Lord Byron’s Don Juan ("Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, / Sermons and soda-water the day after"), suggests its subject: the journey of O’Hara and his generation from their riotous youthful excess in Prohibition through the cataclysms that brought them up short: the Depression and World War II.

Though I consider O’Hara’s novels in his last two decades to be, at a basic level, pleasurable, they were not always consistent, and many critics regard them far more skeptically, as loose, baggy monsters.

But it is hard to find fault with his short stories of the 1960s, which, for breadth of characters and depth of social observation, is virtually unrivaled in American literature.

In a post from nine years ago, on O’Hara’s 1961 story collection, Assembly, I discussed how more fully the nature of this achievement, as well as the nasty Brendan Gill review that precipitated his break from The New Yorker and editor William Maxwell’s shrewd judgment in securing his services again.

The story that convinced Maxwell that the notoriously touchy O’Hara was worth dealing with again was one of the novellas from Sermons and Soda-Water, “Imagine Kissing Pete,” a kind of American “Scenes From a Marriage.” A union begun as an act of spite (sexy Bobbie Hammersmith weds possibly the least desirable member of her circle, Pete McCrea, to get back at a former beau) is followed by mutual infidelity, arguments and straitened circumstances. Yet against all odds, after 30 years, the couple arrive at not merely accommodation but respect and even affection for each other.

As I discussed in this post from 12 years ago about Robert Montgomery, O’Hara missed out on a chance to have that talented writer-director adapt “Imagine Kissing Pete” because of a boorishness that often alienated many admirers.

The other two novellas in the trilogy, "The Girl on the Baggage Truck" and “We’re Friends Again,” though not as superb as “Imagine Kissing Pete,” are similarly distinguished by an elegiac tone and compassion for how his characters dealt with fate that was missing from his earlier short stories.

Typical in this regard is the conclusion of “We’re Friends Again,” in which the narrator ponders what he has learned about his best friend and the latter’s wife:

“I realized that until then I had not known him at all. It was not a discovery to cause me dismay. What did he know about me? What, really, can any of us know about any of us, and why must we make such a thing of loneliness when it is the final condition of us all? And where would love be without it?”

The linked trilogy also marked a return of O’Hara’s alter ego, Jim Malloy, a hard-drinking young writer who had appeared in the 1934 coming-of-age novella “The Doctor’s Son” and the novels BUtterfield 8 (1935) and Hope of Heaven (1938). He is not unlike Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman—a reappearing literary stand-in for the author who, having experienced his own reverses (controversial books, failed relationships, brushes with mortality), functions as a moved observer of friends over time.

The comparison might seem surprising at first, but the turn that O’Hara took in his short fiction in his fifties resembles in some ways that of Henry James:

*Both were writers of manners who, in the fifties, began to write longer fiction as their literary ambitions expanded;

*Both used their disappointing attempts to break into the world of entertainment (James, on the London stage; O’Hara, on Broadway and in Hollywood) as fodder for character creation; and

*Both, terribly saddened by the deaths of loved ones (O’Hara, second wife Belle and close friends Robert Benchley, James Forrestal and Philip Barry; James, sister Alice and brother Willkie), increasingly considered mortality in their work; and,

*Both found the novella an artistically satisfying vehicle.

 Good introductions to both writers can, in fact, be found in such collections (Great Short Novels of Henry James and The Novellas of John O'Hara). They allow for extended treatment of character and theme without the elaborate plot requirements of a longer novel. Above all, they exhibit his sense of verisimilitude, the sense of authority and honesty conveyed by what he called “special knowledge” of social customs.

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