You Can Go Home Again
JOHN O'HARA HAS FOR SO LONG been the acknowledged master craftsman of U.S. short story writers that whatever new peaks of performance he hits are unlikely to stir much surprise. This is a pity because in recent years, as his novels get worse and worse, his stories have been getting better and better. In an astonishing output—four volumes since 1960—of brief encounters and broader recollections, his writing has moved way beyond the burled walnut finish and the chromium-plated dialogue that have made him famous.
The Open Door. The ear is still flawless. "You mean the party that you just got out of their car," says a railroad porter. But what preoccupies him more and more now is compressed portraits of a lifetime. O'Hara once used to open the door to the family living room, glimpse a confrontation, record a riposte driven into the heart of one character by another and slam the door, apparently pleased with himself. Now he walks in and begins describing the furniture of somebody's mind. The perimeter of perceived experience has been expanded by his ever-lengthening memory of countless parlors and other rooms, and O'Hara appears at home in every one of them. One story, for example, begins with a woman's life summed up in 30 years of exchanged Christmas cards. An elderly couple's annual return to a fancy country inn where they have stayed for years becomes an almost unbearable look at the effects of growing old.
Home, James. Though both would no doubt be shocked at the comparison, O'Hara's best later stories offer a world of manners and mores that in its self-contained coherence suggests the world of Henry James. O'Hara has an idiomatic acquaintance with far more people on far more different levels of society than James ever did—chauffeurs, part-time ladies' maids, broken-down movie directors, cops, small town bankers, and so on. But like James, he is a snob and a firm believer that a man's life can best be mirrored in social surfaces. James's rich Americans are dazzled by Europe but never really escape America; O'Hara's favorite characters, however upwardly mobile, never really escape Gibbsville, Pa.
The tension between the two worlds creates some of his best stories. In "The Glendale People," a once-glamourous globetrotter finds himself at last in a Florida development surrounded by the very people he has spent a lifetime avoiding—"married couples from the Middle West," he says sneeringly, "who had come to save money on overcoats and tire chains." Desperately he rallies his glittering memories to prove that what he has seen and done has made him different.
Age Is Wisdom. The sum of O'Hara's wisdom could be denigrated as nothing more than commonplace knowledge that comes with age. His snobs, after all, only face the fact that, in age as in youth, life chooses our friends for us, and it is wise to make the best of them. But in reaching backward to follow their progress, O'Hara is able to dip into the sounds and sights and thoughts of four decades of American life. "The United States in this century is what I know," he explained not long ago, "the way people talked and thought and felt. I want to get it all down while I can." In The Hat on the Bed, he has got down an impressive chunk of it.