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BUtterfield 8 (1935)
In his astoundingly productive career, John O'Hara wrote 402 stories and 14 novels. Reportedly, he drove fellow staffers at The New Yorker to fury because he could sit down at a typewriter and just bang away at the keys nonstop until a finished story rolled out. (These facts come from John Sacret Young's intro to this book.) I've read several of the story collections and a couple of the novels (see review of Appointment in Samarra, which made the Modern Library Top 100 list) and O'Hara's style is fairly distinctive. He plumbs the faultlines of society where the slumming rich meet with the aspiring poor. His stories are driven by dialogue and crisp, witty, trenchant dialogue at that, much like the hard-boiled private eye novels of Hammett and Chandler. His tone is cynical; his subjects doomed. You get the sense that if he knew a pedestrian was about to be run down in front of him, he wouldn't even turn his head. And after witnessing the accident he'd race to a typewriter to share the ugly scene with his readers. He is a kind of an upscale noir writer, a tony purveyor of pulp fiction.
BUtterfield 8 is a roman a clef (based on a real incident) and you can see why the story appealed to him. On June 8, 1931, the dead body of a young woman named Starr Faithfull--no seriously, her name was Starr Faithfull--was found on Long Beach, Long Island. Subsequent reporting uncovered a life of easy morals and much time spent in speakeasies and such piquant details as her childhood molestation by a former mayor of Boston. Despite rumors of political motives for her murder and a supposed secret diary, no one was ever charged in her death.
O'Hara recreates her as Gloria Wandrous, and introduces her on the novel's first page as follows:
On this Sunday morning in May, this girl who later
was to be the cause of a sensation in New York,
This is no happy go lucky flapper he offers up. From that first despairing morning, when she steals a mink coat from the apartment where she wakes in order to replace the dress that her date tore off of her the night before, O'Hara details a brutal, unhappy, ultimately empty life that spirals down towards the inevitable senseless death.
O'Hara said that in Gloria Wandrous he created Elizabeth Taylor before there was an Elizabeth Taylor (she starred in a movie version), just as in Pal Joey, he created Sinatra before Sinatra. In hindsight, the better comparison is probably to Marilyn Monroe. Regardless, his portrayal of a city girl on the edge, and of her eventual destruction, is iconographic and, if it did not create Taylor and Monroe, it certainly influenced writers from Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany's) to Jay McInerney (Story of My Life).
I wouldn't recommend trying to tackle his entire ouvure in one fell swoop, but you should definitely try out this one, Appointment in Samarra, From the Terrace and some of the stories. For my money, the incisive savagery with which he lays bare his generation should rank him with F. Scott Fitzgerald.
-REVIEW: of THE ART OF BURNING BRIDGES: A Life of John O'Hara By Geoffrey Wolff (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
-REVIEW: of The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O'Hara by Geoffrey Wolff (Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly)
Book-related and General Links:
-ARTICLE: A Body of Evidence on LI: When a fashionably attired corpse washed ashore, the DA and the press knew what to do (Steve Wick, Long Island History)
-REVIEW: of APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA By John O'Hara (MARGO JEFFERSON, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of COLLECTED STORIES OF JOHN O'HARA. (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of THE LIFE OF JOHN O'HARA. By Frank MacShane (Anatole Broyard, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of THE LIFE OF JOHN O'HARA By Frank MacShane (Alfred Kazin, NY Times Book Review)
-ESSAY: Book Ends; O'HARA, JOHN (Herbert Mitgang, NY Times)
-John O'Hara's Study at Penn State
-MUSICAL: Pal Joey 1940
-ESSAY: John O'Hara's Protectorate: Revisiting Gibbsville (Benjamin and Christina Schwarz, The Atlantic)
-ESSAY: THE BEST CONVERSATION IN AMERICA (Frank McShane, NY times Book Review)
-ESSAY: READING ABOUT THE RICH (John Kenneth Galbraith, NY Times Book Review)
-ESSAY: ONE TOO MANY FOR THE MUSE (J. Anthony Lukas, NY Times Book Review)
-MODERN NOVELS; THE 99 BEST (Anthony Burgess, NY Times Book Review)
-ESSAY: PRINCETON'S SMALL WORLD OF BIG WRITERS (GLENN COLLINS, NY Times Book Review)
-ESSAY: In and Out of Storyville: Jazz and Fiction (Vance Bourjaily, NY Times Book Review)
-ESSAY: By O'Hara besotted (Morris Freedman, THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR)