John O'Hara Stories

John O’Hara stories
Charles McGrath, Editor

Penguin Random House, Inc. 2016

Twentieth-century American author John O’Hara’s stories of everyday, familiar people are featured in a new Library of America collection, edited by Charles McGrath. O’Hara wrote, McGrath says, about what he knew, from lowlife and high society, nightclubs and newsrooms, to Broadway and Hollywood, politicians and bootleggers and “a great deal about sex.”

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“. . . hopefully will renew interest in [O’Hara’s] timeless stories.”

In O’Hara’s biographical story, “The Doctor’s Son,” we witness his ability to drill down into the core of humanity without a lot of flair. During the flu epidemic in the fictional town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, James drives his father, Dr. Malloy, to visit patients. He contrasts medical treatment for the wealthy versus families of the laid-off miners, mostly Irish, lined up in a saloon. In one desperate case, James and his father visit a home where children are dying, “A place where a miner’s cap with safety lamp hung on a peg.” 

Early in his career, O’Hara wrote for the New Yorker, a relationship that lasted nearly 40 years. But he also wrote novels, and his “Pal Joey” stories became a musical on Broadway and made O’Hara wealthy.  As a screenwriter he received numerous awards, but according to McGrath, O’Hara complained he was “underestimated” and should have been awarded the Nobel prize.

Other notable stories in this collection focus on loss and discovery. In a novella entitled “Pat Collins,” the tragedy is not that Pat’s wife Madge is having an affair with his best friend, Whit Hofman, but that he can no longer enjoy Whit’s companionship. In “Justice,” Mr. Daniels, a successful man with a devoted wife slowly sinks into his self-made hell and loses all his possessions when he becomes sexually obsessed with another man’s wife. Not a spoiler, but to underline O’Hara’s brevity, the story ends with these two lines: “I go to the bus station about once a week to weigh myself. Every man over forty-five should watch his weight.”

O’Hara often wrote plotless sketches such as the “Christmas Poem” in which the character, Billy Warden, is home from college and wants to borrow the family car. There is a tenderness in the dialogue as the parents and Billy attempt to accommodate each other’s needs for an automobile.

This compilation of 60 of his short pieces from 1930-1970 nicely illustrates O’Hara’s reputation as a savvy observer of human behavior and hopefully will renew interest in his timeless stories. 


Reviewer: Kate Padilla