THE LIFE OF JOHN O'HARA by Frank MacShane

THE LIFE OF JOHN O'HARA

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KIRKUS REVIEW

As a corrective to the two previous O'Hara biographies--the chummy soft-focus of Finis Farr, the anxious canonizing of Matthew Bruccoli--this far-less-than-entranced stab does well enough. Still, O'Hara seems to slip out of focus about halfway through MacShane's biography. Is this because he was, finally, no more than a blessed hack, unable to hold up under a full-scale inspection of his rather grinding life and work? Or is it because MacShane is so put off by having to detail O'Hara's almost daily gaucheries? This isn't clear. What is clear is that O'Hara's early alcoholism was disastrous, messing up everything: it queered his relationship to his father (hence a familiar father-disdained independence that translates into being a bully); it brought the lack of any institutional acceptance, beginning in prep school, which led into a fearsome lifelong compensation--snobbery. To his friend Robert Benchley, O'Hara was, succinctly, ""a shit"" (""just as some people are born with blue eyes, but that's no reason to go around apologizing for it. People take you for what you are""). Furthermore, he was a woman-beating embarrassment when young, then a chivvying jealous climber, and ended up a nervous burgher of letters, dressing up in all his artistic overcoats to remind himself of what he'd earned. When O'Hara is humiliatingly worked-over by a pair of midgets in a bar brawl, some time in the Thirties, MacShane almost has you on your feet, cheering. But the real waves O'Hara made as a writer, the timely circles that overlapped both popular and critical attention, seem hastily glossed here: out of the whole canon, MacShane approves only of Appointment in Samarra (""for its youthful vitality and honesty""), From the Terrace (""ambition, thoroughness and immense readability""), and The Lockwood Concern (""for confronting most completely the values that tormented him through his life""); on the very interesting late stories, MacShane approaches real criticism but doesn't follow through. So the only themes that emerge strongly here are MacShane's distastes--for the unpalatable O'Hara personality, for his literary over-production--and the only real involvement comes with a few of the vignettes of O'Hara at work (the collaboration with Rodgers & Hart on Pal Joey is the best of these). Overall, then: a fairly readable rundown of monumental unpleasantness; but if O'Hara's feet are clay, MacShane's are ice--and you may wonder why he bothered.

Pub Date: Jan. 22nd, 1980
Publisher: Dutton