Ten North Frederick houses marital misery

In Ten North Frederick, John O’Hara presents a fictional history of the upper echelons of society in a small Pennsylvania city in the first half of the twentieth century.

When the novel opens, it’s 1945 and Joseph B. Chapin has died.

Ten North Frederick  by John O’Hara

Random House, 1955. 408 pages. 955 bestseller #5. My grade: B-.

Dust jacket of Ten North Frederick shows imposing closed door.Chapins have lived at 10 N. Frederick since 1881. The family is at the top of the local social ladder by virtue of old money and old virtues.

Joe had the personality to succeed in Philadelphia or New York, but he felt—wisely, it turns out—his talents were only Gibbsville-sized.

Joe married a local girl who saw Joe’s limitations as an asset: She could own him.

By Gibbsville standards, Joe and Edith had a happy marriage.

Nobody on the outside saw how miserable they were.

O’Hara’s revelations of the secrets of “the best families” wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in most circles today. Even by 1950’s standards, O’Hara was not a pornographer.

At the end of the novel, Joe Chapin is buried, and people are wondering what his widow will do now.

Readers are no wiser.

They know a lot about Edith Chapin that she wouldn’t wish known, but they don’t know Edith Chapin.

For all his skill in plotting and dialogue, O’Hara never is able to make Edith more than a character in a history book.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Middling 1963 novels are best entertainers

The best novels from 1963’s bestseller list are not the most memorable.

The Battle of Villa Fiorita  and Elizabeth Appleton are extraordinarily detailed pictures of rather ordinary people by fine writers. Rumer Godden and John O’Hara, respectively, make the ordinary characters of those novels assume importance for the duration of their novels.

Once the covers are closed and the book jackets are straightened, however, the fascination dissipates. The casts of Villa Fiorita and Elizabeth Appleton are just too ordinary to be memorable.

By contrast, John Rechy’s City of Night is memorable because its protagonist and its subject are far from mainstream. The fact that Rechy states his theme repeatedly helps, too. Rechy’s novel isn’t entertaining at all.

Between those two extremes are three good, but aging, novels with something to say and a decent story to carry the message: The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris L. West, Caravans by James A. Michener, and The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna. The relevance of each of these novels has diminished with age, but they still provide good entertainment.

Sometimes, good is better than best.

Elizabeth Appleton a treat for active readers

John O’Hara can transform a drab plot about unremarkable characters into an unexpected and unsettling exploration of human behavior. In Elizabeth Appleton, O’Hara is in peak form.

Elizabeth Appleton is an attractive woman who passes for intelligent, but she has no intellectual interests or aspirations. She’s married to a college professor who likes being a college professor. Elizabeth would like him to be a college president.

John and Elizabeth have been getting along fine for nine years, but she’s beginning to feel their sex life is boring. The celebrities that she’d like to meet don’t show up on the lecture circuit in their small Pennsylvania college town.

From an unlikely cast of academics and small-town businesspeople, O’Hara creates a world in which sexual stereotypes twist like reflections in a carnival mirror. Yet O’Hara does it with a respect for his characters that keeps the story from being sordid or smutty.

O’Hara’s writing is smooth, deceptively easy to read. But he demands readers work with him, imagining the scenes, deciphering how the characters speak their lines.

Those who aren’t willing to put in the effort O’Hara demands may wonder why Elizabeth Appleton was a bestseller. Active readers will know.

Elizabeth Appleton
by John O’Hara
Random House, 1963
310 pages
1963 bestseller # 5
My grade A-
©2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Three Forgettable Novellas in Sermons and Soda Water

Sermons and Soda Water is a three-volume set of  novellas that John O’Hara wrote while working on a big novel.

Each story is told by a writer from Gibbsville, Pa. (O’Hara’s hometown) who has gone on to bigger places, bigger things.  In middle age, each of the writers looks back with a combination of nostalgia and remorse to his youth in the years between Prohibition and Pearl Harbor.

The first novella, The Girl on the Baggage Truck, explores the difference between the kinds of things that matter to people and the facts that appear in their obituaries.

The second, Imagine Kissing Pete, is about a girl who marries on the rebound and discovers the wimp has a totally unexpected savage sexuality.

The third, We’re Friends Again, is a tale about a two loveless marriages, one of which is accompanied by a enduring affair.

O’Hara’s characters live for  booze, sex, gossip, and what generally passes in their set as a good time. The writer-narrators blame the shallowness of their group on Prohibition, as if the individuals bear no responsibility for their actions.

O’Hara’s keen observation and ear for dialogue make the characters live, but nothing can make them attractive.

Fortunately, you won’t remember any of them long.

Sermons and Soda Water
by John O’Hara
Random House, 1960
Vol 1. The Girl on the Baggage Truck
Vol 2 Imagine Kissling Pete
Vol 3 We’re Friends Again
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Ourselves to Know Is Full of Surprises

Novelists usually use technique of a narrator who got the story from somebody else when the veracity of the story is in doubt. In Ourselves to Know, John O’Hara turns turns that conceit inside out.

As a child growing up in Lyons, Pa., Gerald Higgins knows Robert Millhouser by sight. He ferrets out the story that Millhouser shot and killed his wife in 1908. Gerald doesn’t understand why his grandfather and parents respect Millhouser despite the murder.

When Gerald is grown, Millhouser him to write the story, with the stipulation that Gerald not publish it for 20 years.

Within this complicated framework, O’Hara presents a riveting story of complex people in a deceptively innocent-appearing era.

Although sex in all its permutations is part of that complexity—in fact, is behind the murder—O’Hara’s focus is on personal change.

No one in this novel is static. People make choices. Choices change people.

In the hands of a lesser writer, Ourselves to Know could have become either a trashy novel or a boring, literary one. O’Hara manages to present a novel worth reading and makes the reading enjoyable.

What’s more,  despite the fact that the identity of the murder is known almost from the beginning, O’Hara pulls off a surprise ending.

Ourselves to Know
by John O’Hara
Random House, 1960
408 pages
1960 bestseller # 5
My grade: A-
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Rage to Live Is Rotten to Read

A Rage to Live is a senior moment in novel form. About 250 pages into the novel, John O’Hara reaches the “What was I going to do?” point. He can’t remember, but he goes on writing for another 350 pages anyway.

In 1917, a Fourth of July fundraiser for the Red Cross is being held at the farm of Gladys and Sidney Tate. The governor has pulled strings to get Sidney a Navy commission.

As they go to bed that night, Sidney asks his wife, “When I’m gone will you still be wondering how much I know, how much I’ve guessed, Grace?”

Predictably, in the second chapter John O’Hara jumps back 30 years to begin the story of what Sidney knows about Grace and how he came to know it. Readers learn even more about Sidney’s sexy wife than even he knows.

None of it is pretty.

Smack in the middle of the novel, Sidney drops dead.

The novel dies with him.

Instead of engendering sympathy for Grace, the nasty things that happen to her only make her less appealing to readers. She is, to put it bluntly, a rich bitch.

And, to put it bluntly, A Rage to Live is an awful book.

A Rage to Live
By John O’Hara
Random House, 1949
590 pages
1949 Bestseller # 4
My Grade: D+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

From the Terrace Is Downhill All the Way

John O’Hara is a fine writer, but he wrote some boring books. From the Terrace is one of them.

The novel is about Alfred Eaton, second son of a small Pennsylvania industrialist. Alfred makes his mark as an investment banker, then serves as an undersecretary of the Navy during World War II. Along the way he has two wives, three children, and numerous affairs.

At 50, after nearly hemorrhaging to death, Alfred retires to a terrace in California to consider his options. He could work for someone else or start his own business.

He does neither. Instead, he lives off his investments and does favors for people who know he has time on his hands.

O’Hara implies Alfred’s post-terrace life is wasted. Wasted compared to what? His earlier life of womanizing and money-grubbing? What’s valuable and noble about that?

O’Hara blames Alfred’s wasted retirement on his never having made any real friends. Alfred doesn’t seem to notice whether he has friends or not. Perhaps sleeping with his friends’ wives cured him of expecting to have friends.

Be that as it may, I couldn’t help feeling O’Hara would have done me a favor by retiring Alfred about 500 pages earlier.

From the Terrace

By John O’Hara
Random House, 1958
897 pages
1958 Bestseller #5
My Grade: D+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni