Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Pour yourself a bit more of John O'Hara's soda-water. It'll be good for what ails you.

On Monday I quoted the opening paragraphs of one of the three novellas that make up Sermons and Soda-Water (1960), which, when I happened across it last week while on vacation, almost instantly made me a John O’Hara fan. Given how strong an impression the openings of the three novellas made on me, it seems right to also share the first paragraphs of the other two in the set.

Here’s the opening of the novella that leads the set, The Girl on the Baggage Truck:
When I was first starting out in New York I wrote quite a few obituaries of men who were presumably in good health, but who were no longer young. It was the custom on the paper where I worked that a reporter who had no other assignment was given this task, which most reporters found a chore but that I rather enjoyed. The assistant day city editor would tell you to prepare an obit on some reasonably prominent citizen, you would go to the office library and get out the folder of the citizen’s clippings, and for the remainder of the afternoon you would read the clippings and appropriate reference books, and reconstruct a life from the available facts, keeping it down to forty lines or whatever length the subject’s prominence had earned. One time I had to look up Jack Smedley, one of the richest oil men in the United States, and I discovered that his folder was so slim that you could have mailed it for the price of a two-cent stamp; while a Bronx politician of almost the same name had six bulging folders that cluttered up my desk. Later, when the two men died, the rich man was a Page One story all over the world, and the Bronx politician got thirty lines halfway down the column on the obituary page. You got what in more recent times was called a sense of values.
It’s not as richly descriptive or evocative as the section from We’re All Friends Now that I quoted Monday, but even in this more modest form the tone and the prose work together to present a distinct voice: straightforward, experienced, knowledgeable, unsentimental, and wry. You want to trust this voice.

Then there’s the opening paragraph of Imagine Kissing Pete, which quickly and clearly introduces the web of relationships, commitments, gossip, and betrayals that are at the heart of O’Hara’s picture of the upper class at midcentury:
To those who knew the bride and groom, the marriage of Bobbie Hammersmith and Pete McCrea was the surprise of the year. As late as April of ‘29 Bobbie was still engaged to a fellow who lived in Greenwich, Connecticut, and she had told friends that the wedding would take place in September. But the engagement was broken and in a matter of weeks the invitations went out for her June wedding to Pete. One of the most frequently uttered comments was that Bobbie was not giving herself much opportunity to change her mind again. The comment was doubly cruel, since it carried the implication that if she gave herself time to think, Pete McCrea would not be her ideal choice. It was not only that she was marrying Pete on the rebound; she seemed to be going out of her way to find someone who was so unlike her other beaus that the contrast was unavoidable.
All three novellas are written from the perspective of a man in his mid-fifties who, driven by various events in his present life, is thinking back on his late twenties, and they are pervaded by the melancholy and loss natural to such reflections. That feeling finds its clearest expression in this passage from Imagine Kissing Pete, which follows the suicide of an acquaintance, Julian English, a few weeks after the narrator, then in his youth, had seen him at a party:
I was shocked and saddened by the English suicide; he was an attractive man whose shortcomings seemed out of proportion to the magnitude of killing himself. He had not been a friend of mine, only an acquaintance with whom I had had many drinks and played some golf; but friends of mine, my closest friends in the world, boys-now-men like myself, were at the beginning of the same kind of life and doing the same kind of thing that for Julian English ended in a sealed-up garage with a motor running. I hated what I thought those next few days and weeks. There is nothing young about killing oneself, no matter when it happens, and I hated this being deprived of the sweetness of youth. And that was what it was, that was what was happening to us. I, and I think the others, had looked upon our squabbles as unpleasant incidents but belonging to our youth. Now they were plainly recognizable as symptoms of life without youth, without youth’s excuses or youth’s recoverability. I wanted to love someone, and during the next year or two I confused the desperate need for love with love itself. I had put a hopeless love out of my life; but that is not part of this story, except to state it and thus to show that I knew what I was looking for.
Longtime readers will instantly see why I was drawn to this passage: it’s driven by the same concerns that animate so much of Anthony Powell’s writing, the question of how one moves through time, what markers and labels and acknowledgments one allots its various stages, how one fights or accommodates its demands. An inevitable byproduct, I suspect, of even the most pleasant vacation with one’s parents, wife, siblings and their spouses, and nieces and nephews, is a growing awareness of time and its cruelly diminishing elasticity, and to happen across such a reflection on those matters in the midst of such inescapable thoughts was, in some ways, a reminder of why we read at all: for all of Plato’s insecure chiding, these shadows on the cave wall do instruct by their example, do enlighten even as we know they are art rather than life. Our lives and our world are not the ones O’Hara or Powell depict, and yet, looked at in just the right way . . .


  1. That last excerpt about the english suicide is interesting, as Julian English is the protagonist of appointment in samara, which i think you'd enjoy.

  2. Now that's interesting. I'm planning to pick up Appointment in Samarra this week--my tiny little local branch library happens to have it on the shelf!

  3. Oh man, Sermons and Soda-Water! I took these out from Mizzou's library my junior year on a whim and was depressed to find the stamp before mine said they'd last been taken out sometime in 1980.

    Such a wonderful narrator.