THIS selection of 36 short stories by the late John O'Hara is instructive, but not in ways that its editor presumably had in mind or, for that matter, that I had anticipated. O'Hara's last book was published 18 years ago and he died only 15 years ago, but his work has not stood this brief test of time. He was one of the most popular and admired writers of his day, but Collected Stories of John O'Hara says nothing so much as that his day is done.
Arriving at this conclusion gives me little pleasure, for O'Hara is a writer for whose work I once had a great if mistaken affection. His obsessive subject is the manners, both social and sexual, of the northeastern middle class; to a young man growing up in the 1950s he seemed irreverent, penetrating and daring. By contrast with John P. Marquand, whose novels of manners had a measured, reticent (and, as it turns out, far more durable) quality, O'Hara seemed cocksure and, especially in his later fiction, somewhat scabrous, characteristics that often appeal to young readers.
O'Hara's audience, though, was scarcely limited to the young and prurient. His readership was enormous and enormously loyal, though it fell off, just as he did, toward the end. From the publication in 1934 of Appointment in Samarra until his death three and a half decades later, his books were fixtures on the best-seller lists. His style was hard-boiled and his eye was cold, though he was certainly capable of a sentimental twist. He described middle-class life with an authenticity that readers immediately recognized -- it was their own world, after all, that he was describing -- but he embellished the familiar with racy adventures that made them feel they were peeping through their neighbors' keyholes.
Unlike most writers of popular fiction, O'Hara also did pretty well with the reviewers. Appointment in Samarra was a great critical success; two decades later a huge gasbag of a novel called Ten North Frederick was actually awarded a National Book Award in fiction, proof positive that all prizes should be greeted with an ample measure of skepticism. Reviewers wrote, as Frank MacShane does in his introduction to this volume, of O'Hara's tough social realism and what MacShane calls "his extraordinary ear." They praised him for his satirical bite (though he did not, in truth, have much in the way of a sense of humor) and his mordant view of social stratification.
BUT TO TODAY'S reader all of this seems something from another era: a period piece that has a certain curiosity value but is also impossibly dated. The details for which O'Hara was so celebrated and which he supplied in such profusion -- makes and models of automobiles, brands of cigarettes and liquor, names of haberdashers and designers -- arouse more confusion than recognition now, because they are details that no longer mean anything to us. By the same token, the prose that seemed so tough and worldly a few decades ago now seems merely arch and mannered; as for that celebrated ear, the passage of time discloses that it was made primarily of tin.
O'Hara's principal subjects, in these stories as in his novels, are what he calls "the complications of sex" and the "unwholesome human traffic" with which the world is crowded. On the first he is clinical, on the second cynical. He is less clinical in the stories than in the novels, for the stories were written for magazines -- The New Yorker, primarily -- that shielded their readers from sexual matters. The cynicism, though, is pervasive. He could give a story a sentimental ending if it suited his purposes, but his view of the world was implacably resentful, condescending and sour; apart from a worldly young reporter who appears in many of the stories and who is clearly O'Hara himself, he does not seem to have created a single character whom he genuinely likes or admires.
Nor has he created, in all 25 of these stories, a single one that has any real claim on our attentions or any real chance of surviving in our literature. The first 14, originally published between 1935 and 1945, are for the most part sketchy and formulaic slices from life that, with their trick endings, owe more to O. Henry than to Maupassant and, with their manic recitation of detail, owe more to the newsroom than the salon. One stands out, if not by much: "Graven Image," in which a man who was snubbed by a club at Harvard has the chance to gain a measure of revenge in the real world. Even here, though, the irony is ham-handed and predictable.
In the later stories, published between 1960 and 1968, O'Hara tended to write at greater length. The best of these is the first, "Imagine Kissing Pete," which originally appeared as one of the three novellas in Sermons and Soda Water, a collection that did much to revive O'Hara's reputation after a long stretch in which he had devoted himself to rankly commercial novels. Like much of his fiction this story is set in the small Pennsylvania town of Gibbsville, O'Hara's thinly veiled depiction of his own hometown, Pottsville, and is narrated by the New York newspaper reporter Jim Malloy, O'Hara's thinly veiled depiction of O'Hara. Its subject is a marriage that seemed doomed from the outset but eventually is rescued by a combination of inertia and a shamelessly mawkish conclusion that O'Hara tacks on to tie everything together.
Like so much else in these stories, that conclusion smacks less of genuine sentiment than of cynicism. O'Hara's view of his fellow man may have been unceasingly hostile, but he was entirely capable of throwing in a happy ending if that seemed to him what his audience wanted. What we see at work in these stories is not an artist but a manufacturer: a facile and observant writer who saw a great deal but had very little to say about it. O'Hara was a terrific reporter -- he always liked to think of himself as one, in fact, though late in life he acquired literary pretensions and began to dream, bitterly, of the Nobel Prize -- and his gifts for that specialized skill must not be underestimated. But the stories he tells in this book are yesterday's news; today they are merely tired, antiquated and pointless.