When Pace University professor Steven Goldleaf was putting together his new collection of New York-based short stories by John O’Hara, he uncovered an interesting thread -- nearly half of the 70 or so stories he was considering for the book actually took place in ‘the suburbs’ of NYC, namely New Jersey, Westchester and Long Island.
“The characters worked in New York City or took a trip there, but they were stories that were essentially set in the suburbs,” says the Pace University professor. “I realized that there could be a whole separate book of them.“
Goldleaf was so intrigued with the notion that -- while his collection The New York Stories (isbn 9780143107095) is garnering considerable attention from those who situate their love for one of America‘s great mid 20th century straight-talking fiction writers squarely in and around Manhattan -- he’s begun work on a sequel to the 400pp Penguin book which will focus on Suburban tales.
Some of them are spectacular stories, says Goldleaf -- like The Bonfire, Mary and Norma, and The Lesson -- which is geographically very specific, set on Skunks Misery Road near Manhasset Long Island.
And they‘re not all Gold Coast tales of the Gatsby set, he says. “While you might think they’re about socialites, a number are not about wealthy or upper class people -- they’re often set in what is at best working class families, people with problems of employment and other issues,” he says. “Sometimes it’s working men rubbing elbows with uber-wealthy types.“
A detailed interview with Goldleaf on the subject may be found at the website of the John O’Hara Society, http://oharasociety.blogspot.com/.
John O’Hara (1905-1970) was born in Pottsville Pa. After the death of his father hesupported himself by writing for local newspapers and then moved to New York to pursue a career in fiction. He received instant acclaim for his first novel, Appointment in Samarra, and quickly came to be regarded as one of the most prominent writers in America. While living a notoriously ‘burn your bridges‘ personal jet setting lifestyle, he won the National Book Award for his novel Ten North Frederick. His fourteen novels include A Rage to Live, Pal Joey, BUtterfield 8, and From the Terrace.
A man who had more stories published in The New Yorker than anyone in the history of the magazine, over the years more than four hundred short stories have been collected in twelve volumes.
Collected for the first time, this new collection focuses on O’Hara’s New York stories --speakeasies and highballs, social climbers and cinema stars, mistresses and powerbrokers, unsparingly observed by a popular American master of realism.
Spanning his four-decade career, these more than thirty refreshingly frank, sparely written stories explore the materialist aspirations and sexual exploits of flawed, prodigally human characters, showcasing the snappy dialogue, telling details and ironic narrative twists that made O’Hara "among the greatest short story writers in English, or in any other language,” according to New Yorker critic Brendan Gill.
“What elevates O'Hara above slice-of-life portraitists like Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner is the turmoil glimpsed beneath the vibrant surfaces,” writes a Wall Street Journal critic. “O'Hara's characters talk about everything except what is really on their minds. And this trick of indirection borrowed from Hemingway let O'Hara powerfully hint at the sadness and struggles of people who don't quite fit in among the crowds.
There’s more than a good chance that when Goldleaf brings out his suburban stories collection, that talent will continue to reveal itself in Long Island and other settings.
After all, O’Hara was no stranger to the place. He rented a summer place on Dune Road in Quogue, beginning in 1931 and for decades thereafter. Old timers recall that he used to walk two miles each day from his oceanfront home to the Surf Club to eat the clam chowder there; his wife Belle Wylie O’Hara, who many recall getting their hair done beside in local beauty parlors, is buried in Quogue Cemetery.
It should be no surprise, then, that a number of John O’Hara stories have a Gold Coast and post-Gold Coast LI focus.
In addition to the other Long Island based stories noted earlier, there’s Sermons and Soda Water, wherein O’Hara’s literary persona Jim Molloy’s rubbing shoulders with Long Island Socialites Junior and Polly Williamson, and sharing beds of Long Island socialites from old old families.
“There’s a car accident, a mysterious rich figure who keeps his identity secret, and it all takes place on the North Shore of Long Island,“ said Goldleaf. “O’Hara’s offering us a counterpoint to Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, in a sense.”
Then there’s ‘Flight, which Goldleaf describes as “a weird story, an elderly playwright living in the far recesses of Suffolk County slips on the ice, suffers an injury -- and in the course of the story, while he dies from that injury, he thinks back over his life,” he said. “It’s a very satisfying story.”
And then there’s BUtterfield 8, one of his most famous novels and a popular movie starring Elizabeth Taylor -- based on a true event which occurred on June 8 1931 on Long Island, when the dead body of a young woman named Starr Faithfull was found on Long Beach.
O’Hara’s suburban focus is not an unknown among researchers. Reviews of his work going back to the 1960s, including one in the Montreal Gazette by Peter MacTell on Dec 8, 1962, called ‘the newly married or much divorced of Long Island’ familiar O’Hara Territory. In the mid 1980s, literary critic Francis C Molloy devoted an entire study to the author’s ‘Suburban Vision,‘ saying these post WWII tales ‘go beyond the concerns” associated with Manhattan, Hollywood and small-town Pennsylvania and “deal, to some extent, with the tension between day-to-day ‘normality’ and the intrusion of emotions and events that conflict with the status quo.”
His suburban protagonists ”attempt to maintain a façade that belies a deeper unrest,” writes Molloy. In doing that, he declares, O‘Hara is able to “universalize the suburban experience without falling into the easy trap of stereotyping it.”
For those who cannot wait for the Suburban Stories to come out, of course, there’s New York Stories to enjoy.