The Art of Burning Bridges
Alfred A. Knopf, 2003; 373 pages; $30
FROM THE DUST JACKET: An enigma of 20th-century literature — a writer accorded great importance in his time, if less than in his own mind — is here explored by one of our most versatile men of letters, a novelist and biographer ideally suited to the strange case of John O’Hara.
The accomplishments are undeniable: “The Region,” the fictionalized coal-mining Pennsylvania of O’Hara’s youth, serving his work much as Yoknap-atawpha County did Faulkner’s; an acute vernacular gift and a narrative frankness shocking in his day, an intimate, combative relationship with The New Yorker for over four decades; and a handful of books, from Appointment in Sumatra to Sermons and Soda Water, that justify their author’s ambitious claims. Moreover, he cut a wide swath through a Manhattan demimonde whose fierce friendships and bitter feuds — fueled by oceans of booze—were played out at such institutions as the Stork Club, “21,” and the Algonquin Round Table. But for all his best-sellers— one of which, Pal Joey, was a hit on Broadway, adapted by Rodgers and Hart — O’Hara had emerged in the wake of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, whose reputations buffeted his own. His preoccupations as a novelist of manners became dated as the world of speakeasies, the Social Register, Ivy League universities, and august clubs was inevitably undermined, while his prickly, status-obsessed outsider’s personality failed to engage (and often enraged) changing fashions.
What Geoffrey Wolff reveals is not only the hugely complicated man in full but also his rightful place in our contemporary attention — a portrait of the artist that illuminates both the process of fiction and an era still vivid in our cultural history.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: From Publishers Weekly. John O’Hara (1905-1970) was not a nice man. Fueled by alcohol and a lifelong inferiority complex, he bullied everyone in his path. His rages — against women, editors, and critics — have become the stuff of literary legend. While admitting his subject’s character flaws, Wolff believes they have obscured the quality of O’Hara’s best work, particularly the novel Appointment in Samarra and several short stories. But in addition to restoring O’Hara’s literary reputation, Wolf has a more personal motive: he details the many ways in which O’Hara reminds him of his own father (memorialized in his notable The Duke of Deception), and as much as he declines to reach any conclusions about their similarities, one cannot help thinking that the author’s soft take on O’Hara’s nasty behavior is informed by respect and compassion for his father’s legacy. Wolff refuses to specula: on what drove O’Hara’s emotional and artistic life, instead adhering to the facts as much as possible - not that the facts are dull. Wolf weaves an engrossing narrative, taking us from O’Hara’s privileged but provincial beginnings as a doctor’s son in Pottsville, PA (the model for his fictional Gibbsville), to his cocktail year among the New York literati and his stint as a Hollywood script doctor. Wolff offers a clear-eyed analysis of O’Hara’s gifts as an acute observer of social manners, with an uncanny ability to illuminate the customs, morals, and hypocrisies of the rich and, more topically, the arrivistes who never quite arrived. This ameliorating biography will go a long way toward mending bridges between O’Hara and his reading public.
From The Sunday New York Times Book Review: ...a biography that is both satisfying and pleasingly unconventional, and one that O’Hara would probably have hated. He would have wanted the full scholarly treatment, like Matthew J. Bruccoli’s 1975 The O'Hara Concern. But The Art ofBunting Bridges is from beginning to end not a scholar’s book but one by a fellow writer. It’s conversational and opinionated — even autobiographical at times, with Wolff recounting his own experiences with rejection (“that particular pain, a stab of shame that something tended and tendered has been repulsed”), with editors and editing, with the indignities of writing for Hollywood. Sometimes Wolff relies on hunches instead of looking things up, and at a couple of moments he simply throws up his hands. Why did so many people find it pleasing to be in O’Hara’s company? he asks. That’s “the major mystery” of O’Hara’s personality, and remains “unexplained.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR; Geoffrey Wolff was bom in Los Angeles in 1937. He graduated summa cum laude in 1961 from Princeton, where he studied with R.P. Blackmur. He taught American literature at two colleges in Istanbul and won a Fulbright for study at Cambridge, where critics George Steiner and F.R. Leavis were his teachers. From 1964-69, he was book critic for The Washington Post; from 1969-71, he was Newsweek's literary critic. He has taught and served as writer-in-residence at Middlebury and Goddard Colleges and Columbia, Princeton, Brown, and Brandeis Universities. Since 1995 he has been at the University of California at Irvine, where he presides over the university’s graduate writing program.
Mr. Wolff has written more than one thousand book reviews, numerous critical and personal essays, biography, memoir, and fiction. His most recent novel is The Age of Consent. Wolff’s biography of expatriate publisher Harry Crosby (Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby) and his memoir (The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father, set in part in San Diego) have found a wide audience. Wolff and his wife Priscilla are parents to two grown sons. A reader interested in knowing more about Wolff might turn to “Introduction; An Apprentice” (Best American Essays 1989), where Wolff writes: “Age is on the personal writer’s side, I hope. Writing about being a son, it helps to be a father. To have wrestled in novels with competing points of view is to have, learned — oh so slowly — to see myself through the eyes of characters (mother, father, brother) I once regarded as bit players in my heroic drama. I’m less cocksure, I think, more sociable (on the page). I’m less fiercely alien, not so determined to be exotic. By inches, reality reveals its ruthless yardstick; a character at a time. The writer populates his personal world. If the personal writer gives up over time the sprightly energy of self-interest, he may win in its place a generosity that gives good work nothing but good service. Not Hallmark sentiment, of course, but a capacity — having been so many distinct and special cases — to regard others, too, as special cases.”
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR; “The O’Hara,” I said, on the afternoon that we talked, “was a long project.”
“Well, it wound up being. I checked the other day and found that I did my first interview in 1994. So it’s been nine years that I’ve been working on it. At the time I thought it would be maybe a year and a half of research and maybe a year and a half to write it. Partly because I thought that I knew the ground so well.
“As I write in the preface, that didn't turn out to be at all so. For example, there were all the superficial characteristics or biographical facts that O’Hara shared with my father. I certainly didn’t think I was going to find my father’s twin, but I thought 1 would find the peculiar social anxieties that they both had."
“They were both social strivers."
“Yes, a striver, and very interested in surface and interested in the kind of standing that you can put in a curriculum vitae. The sort of facts of memberships and of relationships that were supposed to stand for something. What I learned was a kind of double-barreled chastening, because first of all, it turned out that they were not even approximately alike as people. Which threw into some doubt for me the assumptions I made also about my father — and how accurately I’d pinned my father’s motives too. But they were
about as unalike as two people can be. And I won’t rehearse all the things they had in common.
“They were both doctors’ sons, their fathers both had considerable standing in small cities. But not enough standing for their sons. They both had terrible tempers and were nasty drunks. They both were obsessed with the English; they both actually used the same tailors, even in England. They both carried blackthorn walking sticks, they both had 1948 MG TCs, red. They both were obsessed with Yale. Obsessed with it. I mean they just couldn’t stop talking about Yale." (Wolff writes in his preface to The Art of Burning Bridges that “So powerful was Yale’s pull on my father's affection [he owned several English bulldogs!] that it never entered his mind not to claim to have gone there.”)
“So," Mr. Wolff said, “I thought this book was going to be, certainly not a cakewalk, but I thought it was completely, completely doable and within my reach.
“The other thing I thought was that I knew how to ask questions. I’d learned how to ask questions. I thought that I’d be repaid for the years I’ve worked on interviews. In fact, the interviewing was extremely unproductive. One of the remarkable things is that I talked to people I knew well who had known O’Hara well. So I already had the advantage. One of them was Dean Lippincott from Princeton, who’s a very garrulous and incredibly curious and charming man. When O’Hara lived in Princeton, and after O’Hara stopped drinking, the Dean would go over to O’Hara’s house often, maybe as many as three times a week in the afternoons. They’d sit and talk. So I asked the Dean, who’s a friend, I said, ’What did you guys talk about?’ And the Dean would say, ’Well, you know, we just shot the shit.’I said,’Well, I mean, would you talk about sports, would you talk about politics, would you talk about girls, would you talk about clothes?’ *I don’t know, Geoffrey, we’d just shoot the shit, the way people do.’ And I said, ‘Was he funny? Did he make you laugh?’ The Dean said, ‘I don’t know. He was a good guy. I liked him a lot.’
“This went on and on and on, and it was characteristic of a great many interviews I had. Finally, finally the Dean was the first person who sort of said it out loud. He said, ‘Jesus, I was drunk all the time.’ Now O’Hara wasn’t. But I was just sure that I was going to get these wonderful little accounts that would allow me to be able to say with authority what it was like to be liked by O’Hara, what it was like to be in his company.
“And so that — interviewing — took forever because I kept redoubling efforts. And I just thought, ‘This is out there, I’m just not asking the right questions.’ "
“Isn’t it depressing to travel somewhere and spend a day like that,” I said, “and come home and realize that you have just a heap of ashes?”
“Well, I didn't always realize it, because of that strange phenomenon that we all have is the excitement — the real excitement in the moment of the interview when you hear that thing that surprises you or that thing that has such wonderful specificity that you know it’s God’s truth, what you’ve just heard. But at the same time, you march forward to your interview, and you realize that you’re making progress and filling out the blanks. ‘Oh, that’s what his apartment in New York was like.’ Somebody finally describes that.
“So I just kept trying, and finally I ran out of people who had known him who were alive who were willing to talk to me. Almost everybody was willing to talk to me. All his friends were friends; they all liked him a lot. It was clear, the affection. But when people talk about his second wife, they were incredibly specific. They remember that she’d made her own clothes and what her dresses looked like and the timbre of her laughter and — everything. But not with him. And I don’t know whether he was guarded or what."
“I think he was guarded.”
“He was obviously guarded, yes."
“I think he was always making up who he was.”
“That’s more like my father. I don’t think he was making up who he wanted to be — the one thing he wanted was to have a big long entry in Who's Who and a big, long entry in the Social Register. Everything was put to the service of that, except when he was writing, and then all that energy was put to the service of making the writing good. When he knew how to make it good, he did. But he just didn’t always know."
“When you came to make the decision that you would write about O’Hara, had you already read his work at least once?”
“Oh, yes. I had read everything. I’d read all the ones you’d imagine one might have read. As an adult I'd reread Appointment in Sumatra, and I’d reread The Collected Short Stories. But I had not read since I was an adolescent From the Terrace and A Rage to Live. When I read them — and I may have been a faster reader then — I don’t remember devoting a year of my life to reading that damn thing. I mean, after all. From the Terrace is the equivalent of ten Appointment in Samarras.
“I think what I probably did as an adolescent is that somebody had pre-read From the Terrace and A Rage to Live and had dog-eared the good parts. The gropings — it’s always in the front seat with the huge stick-shift gear lever between the two of them. I guess we used to get all hot about it. But I didn’t know. I’d never encountered as good a writer who wrote as badly with the possible exception of Faulkner in books like Pylon. But I’d never read anybody so good who could be so horrible a writer. And the horrible ones are all the long ones, what I call ‘the tomes.’ But the short work? Appointment in Samarra is up there in a class with The Great Gatsby for me. It’s a beautifully made book.”
I said that Appointment in Samarra, for me, bore similarities to Camus’s The Stranger.
“Yes, but without that, without the distance from the principal character. The Stranger depends on the reader being distant from Meursault and Meursault insisting on a distance from the reader. There’s no intimacy there. It’s hard to imagine being Meursault. But there’s so much intimacy in Appointment in Samarra. The scene I remember from The Stranger is Meursault smoking by his mother’s coffin. The scene that I think is the great scene in Appointment tn Samarra is the scene in which Julian English has the second-string social reporter over to the house and she condescends to him. And after she leaves he stands up and accidentally breaks his favorite phonograph record. I think that scene does something that is almost unimaginable. I think it makes the suicide at the end of that book absolutely necessary and inevitable in the way that suicides are almost arbitrary; they’re plot devices. But that scene, what’s so vivid about it for me, is the personal shame, the feeling of just saying, ‘My God, how could you continue to live after those things had just happened?’ ”
“Have you taught O'Hara?" “I teach him to writing students. And with enormous success, I must say. With Appointment in Samarra, I mean, all you’ve got to do is get them to read it. And they say, ‘My God, who’s this guy again?’ "
One of the most pleasurable aspects of reading Geoffrey Wolff's O’Hara biography is the voice in which Mr. Wolff has chosen to tell O’Hara’s life. I said to Mr. Wolff, “It’s a confiding voice, as if we were on some country weekend, in the mid-1930s, before the start of World War II. We are sitting in comfortable lawn chairs, and the grass is perfect, and the drinks mildly chilled and you are telling me about this man O’Hara. How did you find this voice?”
“It wasn’t calculated in advance. But what would happen is because those anecdotes about him were so easily told, they were so frozen. They all gathered around questions like social pretension, or pomposity, or naked ambition for a prize or a medal. And they were the things that are told over and over and over again. I resolved, first of all, to get those out of the way, or get that tolTe out of the way right away in the first chapter. Tell them all and get rid of them. The reason I wanted to do it was that where my voice began to become an instrument in the book is when I thought, ‘Yes, but it’s more complicated than that.’ “In fact, what was O’Hara’s mistake was he put himself naked in the world. It was like he didn’t even have any skin on him. So I wanted to tell, and I hoped it would resonate with other people, what it’s like to get a bad review, what it’s like to have somebody tell you that you’re writing in the wrong form, somebody you admire, somebody you revere—the way Lionel Trilling told O’Hara,‘You should be writing long novels,’ and how those things happen."
“And,” I said, “the cruel, condescending, almost catty letters The New Yorker's Katherine White sent O’Hara.”
“Yes. And the letters, and to get the goddamn letters, which all of us, anyone who has ever written certainly has gotten, and people in other callings have gotten too. But in order to say that it’s more complicated than that, all I could do is say I’ve had some of these things happen to me.
“Then, I’ve always been irritated by readers, and, particularly by critics, who declare that some subjects, just in the most thematic way, arc beneath consideration. I wanted to insist that what’s fit to be written about is pain, human pain, wherever it’s encountered, and it may be encountered in something Lionel Trilling says or in being snubbed on the sidewalk. But at the same time, pain is pain. So I wanted to find a way to say that without also making too large a claim for it. The only way I could find to do that was by speaking for myself. I couldn’t speak for O’Hara.”
“At least two things the narrative voice in this biography allows you to do,” I said, “are to be an advocate for O’Hara and then just to be so funny. Sometimes, reading, I laughed and laughed.”
“O’Hara was sometimes a comic character — as is someone who is outsized in his wants and in the offenses that they take. There is in this, of course, a kind of human comedy — I know it means something else. But it’s a real thing to me, in its literal meaning. All of us sit around and say, at some point in our lives, ‘I know what let’s do.’ And the rest is this wonderfully comic cataclysmic outcome of that proposition — ‘I know what I’m going to do.’ And so I didn’t, God knows, want to be solemn, but at the same time, I hope that I was doing a kind of a flanking attack on the kinds of biographies that come to a conclusion about whether someone’s life was worth living. And then just array all the forces on one side or the other. I mean, yes it was or no it wasn’t.
“Also, I was constantly aware, because of his daughter, that he had been as good a father to her as I've ever heard of anyone being. So it seemed to me that if you can do that at all, if you just had the rudimentary skills to be that decent and understanding and wise about children, that you can’t be all bad. It’s not like Hitler being nice to his dog. There’s a sort of human wisdom called for in that. Which O’Hara clearly had."
“The narrator,” I said, “is compassionate in that way. Compassion is not something that you come across frequently any more in biography.”
“One of my anxieties about the way I told the story was not, certainly, that my current editor, Gary Fisketjon, or Elizabeth Sifton [a former editor] would disapprove. But when my editor was Joe Fox, who edited Black Sun, the one thing I used to get in the margins all the time, over and over, was Too much Wolff.’
So there was a real sense that if I was looking over my shoulder when I composed this, it was hearing Joe say, ‘Shut up, shut up!
Let O’Hara have this.’ That’s one of the reasoas it took me so long. Because the early drafts, instead of being indulgent of myself, were too flat. I’d read them and I’d say, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, I’ve got more to say about that.’ ”
“Almost anyone who’s a good researcher,” I said, “can do that kind of uninflected biography. Matthew J. Broccoli did it in that exceptionally tiresome, to me, O’Hara Concern.”
“Yes. But with O’Hara, that kind of biography would be incredibly flat because O’Hara, in his letters, seems to suppress the impulse to confide or be unguarded. Except in his letters to his daughter."
I said that from reading The Art of Burning Bridges I got the impression that O’Hara didn’t read much in the way of fiction and that he rarely seemed to mention books he’d read.
“I very rarely encountered a writer who seems to have read as little as O’Hara did. He read a lot of nonfiction, for research. Every once in a while he’d fasten onto somebody that he thought was really the cat’s meow. Earlier he'd read Booth Tarkington and people like that, but you won’t find many references, say, to Twain, and none to Melville. He just didn’t seem to ever do it. It’s very unusual. There are actually very few writers I know that that’s true of.
“I find that writers don’t talk much about books with each other, but then, some people I know do talk a great deal about books. For example, Toby [Wolff's younger brother,Tobias Wolff], Ward Just, Richard Ford. Richard and I talk about fiction. With Toby usually I talk about history. We both are fascinated reading about little corners of history. So Toby will be up to speed on Peter the Great as a ghastly houseguest in England. He will have read something about the missionaries in Quebec in the 18th Century. With Ward, it’ll be the latest book on Churchill or Stalingrad. But with Richard, we talk about novels and stories."
Where everyone talked about books, Mr. Wolff said, was that time when everybody was gathered at Goddard College in Vermont. “We were all employees of this little low-residency program. That’s where I met Richard Ford, that’s where I met Michael Ryan, that’s where I met Tom Lux, that’s where I met Stephen Dobyns, where I met Ray Carver, Louise Gluck, Donald Hall, Frank Conroy, I already knew. He was there. Bob Hass was there, Craig Nova, John Irving, Philip Levine.
“And the way that worked is that there’d be a 12-day session when students were there. It was so grim. We lived in student dormitories on these ratty little mattresses, a quarter of an inch thick, and we’d all be walking down to use the can with our towels over our arms. We were getting $2500 for six months. This was 1977. Eating cafeteria food, freezing our nuts off."
“And you were grownups.”
“We were grownups. God, but the guy was going to come with a padlock and put it on my front door if I didn’t get $2500. So anyway, we had to amuse ourselves during the evenings, and the way we’d do it was to get drunk and read horrible passages or favorite great passages. People would sit around for hours and trade passages. It was as much fun as I can remember having. We had a ‘stuffed owl night,’ when people would read the worst poems. But then you know one of my favorite passages in the world is the wonderful moment in Speak, Memory when Nabokov looks out the dining room window and sees his hither flying past being tossed in a blanket by the peasants. And he keeps floating up and coming down and floating and is fully dressed. It’s this extraordinary passage. So I’d read that or something from Henry IV, Part II.
“You just knew that these were people who were reading every minute. But I haven’t heard among writers a lot of book talk in my life. I’ve heard contracts discussed. I’ve heard asshole critics discussed. But for some reason, it requires an enormous amount of concentration and intimacy to talk about books. It is one of the things I like about teaching graduate students, that I can assume that they’re ambitious enough to want to know how to learn to write. And the way to learn to write, I mean for everybody, is to read. Every once in a while there’s a natural. Maybe O’Hara is one. But teaching is a kind of formal intimacy. But there’s an intimacy there. I’ve got three hours to convince them about what they ought to be reading.”
O’Hara, I said, rarely talked about books and he rarely spoke intimately, from the heart I added that I imagined he looked at this kind of talk as “sissy.”
Mr. Wolff agreed. “I think he certainly looked down on it as sissy. For example, you never find, in his letters, even to people he’s very close to, about something that has turned him on, some book that has turned him on. He’ll write a third party that James Jones is about to be trashed by the critics and it’s unfair because his book is wonderful. He’s going to be trashed by the critics because his time has come in the great food chain to be eaten as opposed to eat. It’s career talk. It’s like going to any convention. I suppose a convention of undertakers or a convention of dentists or a convention of car dealers. They just talk shop instead of talking about what’s under the hood."
“If one of your graduate students at Irvine had showed up and started writing Appointment in Samarra, would you have recognized the great talent there?”
“Oh golly. I can’t believe that I wouldn’t have known right away. I think that book is something of a freak in that way because I think that book, you just can’t not know that that’s good right from the start. I think you’d know right away. You would if you’d seen the story, 'The Doctor’s Son.’ You’d know right away. But O’Hara would have been the worst student anyone ever had because he would have been take it or leave it. If you don’t like it, ‘Fuck you.’
“He learned exactly the wrong lesson from bad editing. He learned that the editors really didn’t mean him well. I think particularly about the response he got from the all-too-legendary Maxwell Perkins, that the things that he was writing about were unseemly. That’s terrible.”
That critics or editors criticize characters by saying they didn’t like them, I said, always strikes me as odd.
“In my workshops when somebody says they don’t like a character, I say, ‘Do you mean that you don’t like her because you wouldn’t want to have dinner with her, or you don’t like reading about her?’ ‘What’s the difference?’ I say, ‘How do you feel about Iago?’ Do you want to hang out with Iago on the page or in the theater?’ ‘Well, yeah,’ they say. I ask, ‘Do you want to have Iago for your best friend?’ They say, ‘No, no.' That confusion b just so primitive, but it’s there. I mean, it’s perfectly fair to say, ‘I don’t like this character.’ What that means usually is that the writer has disapproved of the character. I mean, my God, people like Portnoy, as long as they don’t, as they all say, have to shake his hand.”
“Or,” I suggested, “eat out of his refrigerator.”
We talked more about O’Hara’s relationship with editors. He sold his first short story to The New Yorker in 1928. He went on to sell them 224 more stories, more than any other writer. One of the editors with whom he got on best was the gentle and unassuming William Maxwell, himself also a writer. O’Hara’s relationship with Maxwell, said Mr. Wolff, “was incredibly wholesome. Maxwell had his faults as an editor, I mean, it was Maxwell who turned down John Cheever’s The Swimmer’ because he thought it didn’t make sense. But, Maxwell was an editor whom O’Hara completely trusted and could argue with if he wanted to, so it was a potentially perfect relationship. With Maxwell, O’Hara never believed that when a piece of work of his was being criticized that it was he who was being criticized. It was the piece of work that was being criticized. He really did understand that about MaxwelL They never really did quarrel. O’Hara could have learned a lot from Maxwell. Maxwell would have given him the time and the close reading and all the rest of it. Maxwell discovered about O’Hara — I mean, he didn’t tell me this but I learned this by reading their letters — that you either take it or you turn it down. And the way you take it, with the exception of correction of real errors, is the way it is. O’Hara, I don’t think, had the patience to revise. I think he was one of those odd ducks — there are very few of them — who can’t make a thing better by revising it”
“O’Hara,” I said, “thought that everything he was doing at the time he was doing it was perfectly brilliant."
“That’s the only way to write a first draft.”
“That’s the only way to write a first draft. You bet. And if you don’t write a second one, or even read it, then you can maintain that illusion for quite a long time. And really that’s what he did.
- “What made him so good at writing women?”
“This is something of a mystery to me. He was very, very close to his mother. There’s plenty of suggestive evidence that his mother was irreverent. She liked to tell jokes and she liked to gossip. The sibling he was closest to was his sister Mary. But that only goes a really short distance toward explaining it. He never, never didn’t seem to understand that women weren’t any more mysterious than anyone else. He assumed that women shared the same ambition and erotic and self-destructive drives that he did. I think that in some ways, again, he extrapolated from himself about the entire world, and so he didn’t want to miss out on half the world to extrapolate on."
“He dressed his women well, too. Which you guy writers don’t always do.”
“That was the time when the eye was trained, for men and women. But he could see the Peck & Peck woman as opposed to the Lord & Taylor woman. He understood that. And he was interested in women. I found very few women, very few women — Thurber’s wife being almost alone among them and Katherine White being another one — who said that they didn’t like him or they thought he was a bore. He loved to talk to women.
“He’s really sharp at the distinction between women and men where there are distinctions. There’s a way that all Hemingway's women are just guys. But that's not true of O’Hara’s women.”
“The New Yorker,” I said, “for all that they printed O’Hara’s stories, never seemed to take him in.”
“That’s a very good way of putting iL I never put it that way. But I would certainly endorse saying that. I think that’s exactly right. They never took him in. I think that’s exactly right. There was something very, very peculiar about that. I think the place where you can really see it are in The New Yorker's reviews of his books. From the beginning they were so condescending. He was always this problem. Except for Maxwell. Maxwell just thought of him as a writer.
“Of course, it is hard to take seriously a letter [like a letter O’Hara wrote to The New Yorker] that says, from your writer, ‘I’ve added up the words. I’ve added up the numbers of stories. I’ve written for you more than anyone else, I deserve a gold watch.’ Right? So then, ha-ha, you go out and get him a gold watch or a brass watch in a pawn shop. And in a way that’s exactly appropriate. But once you buy the brass watch in the pawn shop, that becomes the story that you tell out there in the world. And it’s like telling a story that is contemptuous or mocking of your children.
“It is also true that as soon as he’d do something that they respected, he’d write one of those goddamn letters. As soon as he sensed he had any advantage, then all the resentments would be rehearsed. So there was never a moment of peace with him.”
“Some days, when you were working on this, you must have felt beside yourself with frustration with O’Hara.”
“Yes. Well, there’s even an outburst at the end of one chapter when I write, ‘Sometimes it’s very hard to like this guy.’ It’s true. There were times when he’d seem to be a particularly boorish houseguest, and I just wanted to get him out of my house. I would ask, ‘Why in the world am I still doing this?’ ”
“But,” I said, “so many people who make things that are beautiful were or are, to this day, so unpleasant.”
“Oh. I mean, my God. It’s almost, who wasn’t — Frost, Hemingway, certainly Fitzgerald, and Faulkner could be mean as a snake."
“Maybe Eudora Welty was nice."
“Eudora Welty was nice, and I think Flannery O’Connor was nice. On this subject, I had a little correspondence with John Gregory Dunne, and he said that in the end O’Hara was like those people that all of us have as friends about whom people say, ‘How can you like that asshole?’ And you just do.
In the end you just do. Too, because we're less and less tolerant of bad behavior than they were then, they all seemed to behave badly half the time.”
“I think the young still behave badly. Do you?"
“Not cruelly, I think. General drunkenness and mayhem, though, that hasn’t changed. But you don’t hear of too many people getting in fights with midgets anymore [as O’Hara once did].”
Mr. Wolff writes:
Egregious episodes of bad judgment and cruelty marred O’Hara’s life, especially when he was drinking too much; and certain of these outrages — uncontested in their hatefulness — threaten to discolor any valuation of O’Hara’s nature. I can hardly deny or ignore that O’Hara punched a couple of women, or that he battled an actual midget after inquiring, down the bar at a New York nightspot. “What the fuck do you think you’re staring at?” to someone perhaps even more sensitive than himself to offensive scrutiny.
“I must admit I loved that scene, when he got in the fight with the midget.”
“I must admit I loved it too. I also love that it can’t be always known in these fights who said what to whom, ‘Who the fuck do you think you’re looking at?’ I mean, either you’re looking at them or you’re looking at their date or their wife or something, but it’s always, ‘Who the fuck do you think you’re looking at?’ Or, in its variant, the core of the sentence, which is, ‘You know the thing that’s wrong with you? The thing that’s wrong with you is you’re a silly-looking cocksucker.’ That’s the declarative, that’s the expository and the descriptive bar fight as opposed to the interrogatory bar fight.”