Creative Destruction in Fiction

By Weiner, Lauren | Modern Age, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Creative Destruction in Fiction


Weiner, Lauren, Modern Age


John O'Hara: Stories

(New York: Library of America, 2016)

If you ever want to make America decline again, you can read John O'Hara. That is to say: the cities, towns, and rural areas of "flyover country" that gave Trump his margin of victory in November are in a funk that we might suppose is new; but really it isn't. O'Hara chronicled life among the bicoastal big shots, but his more compelling depictions are of Pennsylvania, where he was from. He gave his native Pottsville, a small city built on the fortunes of the anthracite coal industry, the fictional name of Gibbsville and set many of his stories and novels there. It was not that happy a place even back in the day.

We recall the boosterism of Sinclair Lewis's George Babbitt, who looked forward to his town reaching the milestone of one million inhabitants. It is as if O'Hara were reversing Lewis (one of his great literary influences) in his 1963 story "The Man on the Tractor," in which a Gibbsville banker offers this lament about the state of the coal industry and of his community:

There's no money here, not the way we knew it. We're losing
population, a thousand a year. The town is back to where it was in the
1910 census, and no new industries coming in. These people that are
buying your land, they'll put up a supermarket and a big parking lot,
but sure as hell that's going to be the end of some more of the
smaller stores....It's the fast buck, the quick turnover, build as
cheaply as possible, take your profits and get out. Some of our people
drive as much as fifty miles to work and fifty back. Car pools....A
few of our old friends have made some money in the stock market, but
that's not here. That's New York and Philadelphia, and representing
industries as far away as California. (501)

O'Hara writes about ambition and the things it makes us do. His business people drive hard bargains and his married couples obsess about how they might move themselves up in the social pecking order. Worse, his young people, observing this behavior in their parents, are so jaundiced that they don't seem to harbor much ambition at all. In the posthumously published story "Family Evening" (1972), a daughter refers to her elders as "the B.D.'s" or "Better Deads."

What is refreshing about O'Hara (1905-1970) is that he was an outlier. For whatever reason--and quite possibly it was his Roman Catholicism--he was immune to the attractions of the "protest novel" of the 1930s and '40s. While he cultivated friendships with trendy Reds and Popular Fronters like Dorothy Parker, Clifford Odets, and Ernest Hemingway, their politics--their proletarian-glorifying and their reform impulses--were not his. O'Hara's America is rather grim, yet he does not come across as anti-American but as a writer trying to capture the earthy reality. And not incidentally trying to attract a big audience. If earthiness involved touching on subjects like sexual infidelity, illegitimate births, alcoholism, suicide, euthanasia, drug overdoses, or abortion, O'Hara, a reporter and columnist for several Manhattan newspapers and national magazines, wasn't above using sensationalism to get on the bestseller list.

Appointment in Samarra (1934) features a luxury car dealer who goes on a drinking binge and commits suicide-by-Cadillac (carbon monoxide in the garage). This first O'Hara novel was wildly successful. He went on to write sixteen more, several of which--Butterfield 8 (1935), A Rage to Live (1949), Ten North Frederick (1955), and From the Terrace (1958)--were adapted into movies. He wrote for the movies himself, having made the sojourn west that Hemingway, Parker, William Faulkner, and other literary men and women did during Hollywood's golden age. O'Hara wrote or contributed to several screenplays without interrupting the steady stream of short fiction he contributed to the pages of the New Yorker. He turned a group of his New Yorker pieces into a libretto for what became a classic of the musical theater, Pal Joey (1940). …

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