A Life of John O’Hara
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An idiosyncratic biography of the pugnacious author (1905–70) of, most notably, Butterfield 8.

Himself a novelist (The Age of Consent, 1995, etc.), Wolff is as present as his subject here, frequently using the pronoun “I” and offering openly personal reactions to John O’Hara’s work and behavior. This direct engagement is often quite charming and funny: reporting the writer’s self-aggrandizing claim to have received “the highest ever” grade at one of the several prep schools he was thrown out of, Wolff characterizes the claim as “an absolute that this biographer, who confesses to a lazy failure to chase and pin down facts of this nature, absolutely disbelieves.” Indeed, Wolff’s sporadic interest in mundane things like dates makes this text unlikely to supersede the more conventional biographies of O’Hara by Finis Farr and Frank MacShane. This biographer follows his muse, devoting much more attention to O’Hara’s youth in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, and the wild, alcoholic years in Prohibition-era Manhattan than to his happy second marriage or to his last two decades (covered in a single 34-page chapter). But it’s interesting and valuable to get another working writer’s sympathetic perspective—complete with blunt side-taking against condescending editors like the New Yorker’s Katharine White—on the psychic and financial difficulties of the author’s life. While sharing most critics’ view that O’Hara’s short stories and his first novel, Appointment in Samarra, were his best work, Wolff does not cavalierly dismiss even such baggy later efforts as A Rage to Live and Ten North Frederick; he’s too familiar with the struggle that goes into even mediocre books. Wolff is frank but generous about the insecurities that made O’Hara a social-climbing snob and a nasty drunk. As censorious biographers too often forget, those same insecurities fueled fiction notable for its sharp awareness of how the class system operates in American life and the damage it inflicts.

By no means the final word on O’Hara, but an appealing piece of special pleading. (8 pp. b&w photos)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-679-42771-6
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2003


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