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Hard-boiled O’Hara 

How the author of Appointment in Samarra influenced a generation of crime-fiction writers

Thursday, Jan 29 2004
Courtesy of Wylie O’Hara Doughty

“He is Hubert Ward the movie star,” reads the penultimate sentence of John O’Hara’s 1962 Hollywood novel, The Big Laugh, “and no son of a bitch can take that away from him.” Then comes the last, sardonic phrase — a cosmic shaggy-dog punch line uttered either by the omniscient author or by some other Olympian observer: “Ha ha ha ha ha.”

John O’Hara — born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in 1905, raised to celebrity in New York City, often employed by Hollywood studios — was a student of American manners from coast to coast. He knew that what was given in this society could as easily be taken away. The Big Laugh’s final joke could almost apply to the career of John O’Hara: one of the best-known writers of his generation, whose critical reputation was starting to disintegrate even before his death in 1970.

Geoffrey Wolff’s new biography of O’Hara, The Art of Burning Bridges, is prompting reappraisal of an author too long neglected for various reasons (one of them indicated by the title of the book itself). Reading this good biography reminded me of when I discovered The Big Laugh in 1969, a year when O’Hara’s literary stock had fallen so low that a self-conscious reader might well hide the fact he was enjoying a writer so seemingly out of sync with the era of Pynchon, Heller, Mailer and Barth.

Appropriately, given The Big Laugh’s subject matter, I was working at the time as an actor in a Hollywood movie, on location in Stockton, California. This movie — The Moonshine War, a period tale of backwoods-Kentucky distillers on the eve of Prohibition’s repeal — had a surprisingly bookish cast and crew. One of its stars, Irish-Englishman Patrick McGoohan, could be heard between setups typing in his trailer at a screenplay in progress. The lead actress, Melodie Johnson, would in a few years (as Melodie Johnson Howe) become a mystery novelist. Our kind and gentle director, Dick Quine, was a literate man who’d figure memorably in jazz musician Willie Ruff’s notable 1991 memoir, A Call to Assembly. Harry Carey Jr., also in the cast, was taking notes for the fine autobiography he’d eventually write. And our young second assistant director had published a Pushcart Prize–winning short story.

So I kept my paperback of The Big Laugh out of sight.

Yet O’Hara fans seemed to have a sixth sense about one another’s presence. Being driven back from location to the Stockton Holiday Inn one afternoon, I blurted to the production’s driver — a quiet, white-haired man 35 years my senior — “Ever read any John O’Hara?”

“Well,” the driver said with due deliberation, “I’ve probably read every word he’s written.”

When we got to the hotel, using MGM per diem money, I bought that man a beer.

My next O’Hara intuition came 20 years later, in a Malibu restaurant, while interviewing author Ross Thomas. It seemed to me Thomas’ unique thrillers shared some of John O’Hara’s awareness of how America worked, of the tolls exacted from outsiders trying to be insiders. Yes, said Ross Thomas (an Oklahoman who became a Beltway person for a time but never forgot his roots), he was indeed a longtime admirer of O’Hara’s work, especially his short stories.

“My favorite,” Thomas said, “is the one about the guy in the weekly poker game, who thinks all the other players accept him as an equal — until the moment of truth, when one of them tells him, ‘Oh no, Jake, you’ve got it all wrong. We let you play with us, sure, and we’ll take your money; but you’re not one of us.’” And Ross Thomas uttered his dry Ross Thomas Chuckle: a small, mordant echo of John O’Hara’s Big Laugh.

 

The Art of Burning Bridges suggests that O’Hara’s strongly dialogue-driven work may have had an influence on several modern playwrights: “In a way,” writes Wolff, “Harold Pinter, David Mamet, and Neil LaBute are in the line of succession from O’Hara’s most combative fictional set pieces.” John O’Hara may have had an even more direct influence on some of the most inventive crime-fiction authors of the past 40 years — from Ross Thomas to George V. Higgins to Elmore Leonard.

The violence endemic to crime fiction runs throughout the oeuvre of John O’Hara, one of Edmund Wilson’s original “boys in the back room” of American literature. Suicide is a common end for the protagonists in O’Hara stories, starting with the author’s sensational 1934 first novel, Appointment in Samarra. Early in his career, O’Hara was tagged a hard-boiled writer, in the tradition and company of Dashiell Hammett. (“James Cain, John O’Hara, Dashiell Hammett move over. You’ve got a new pal,” said the Los Angeles News’ review of The Big Sleep, the 1939 debut book by Raymond Chandler.)

Complementing the physical violence in O’Hara’s work was its verbal and social cruelty. John O’Hara had an “impeccable understanding of what brutal use can be made of impeccable behavior, of how closely the cut of a suit can approximate the cut of a knife,” wrote Fran Lebowitz in her introduction to the new Modern Library edition of Butterfield 8.

So where do those modern crime-fiction authors come in? I can draw you a diagram, if you’ll follow me back to that Stockton location for The Moonshine War in 1969.

“Look,” the second assistant director (the Pushcart Prize winner) said to me one day, “there’s the writer.”

He indicated a slim, trim-bearded fellow in his 40s standing on the sidelines, wearing a flat cloth cap and watching the setup with a laid-back intensity.

“This is his first script,” the A.D. said. “He’s written a lotta books.”

“Oh yeah? What kind?”

“Western novels, mostly.”

Westerns?” No wonder I’d never heard his name: Elmore Leonard.

 

Several Leonard stories had already been made into movies. But now, in acknowledgment of a changing fiction market, he’d determined to stop writing Westerns and start writing crime fiction. He encountered a problem, though: There was no model for the type of novel he wanted to write.

“Hammett, I couldn’t get into him,” Leonard told me in a 1997 interview. “I liked Chandler okay, but I didn’t learn anything from him. I didn’t learn anything from the first-person writers.”

The only book he learned anything from, Leonard said, was a 1972 book touted to him by his Hollywood agent H.N. Swanson (whose movie-town clients in earlier decades included Raymond Chandler and John O’Hara). The book Swanson told Leonard to read was The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a first novel by a former Massachusetts federal prosecutor named George V. Higgins. Higgins’ striking use of vernacular dialogue electrified Leonard, freeing him to find his own voice. “I think Friends of Eddie Coyle is the best crime book written,” Leonard said. “Yeah.”

George V. Higgins, who died in 1999, was clear about who’d shaped his writing: John O’Hara. Higgins quoted with approval O’Hara’s creed: “A man cannot be a first-rate writer unless he can write first-rate dialogue.” From O’Hara to Higgins to Leonard, then — with Leonard influencing a host of younger writers since.

“Dutch” Leonard has come a long way from that day in 1969, when he watched us shooting scenes for The Moonshine War. “The only time I was on the set,” Leonard recalled, “[Patrick] McGoohan comes over, and he says, ‘Well, what’s it like to stand there and hear your lines all fucked up?’ Oh, man . . .” It was a vexed production from the start, Leonard thought. “The producer fired me off the picture — and then the director got me back on, about a week later. But he was the wrong director, for this! You know, How To Murder Your Wife, Paris When It Sizzles — but then, to do this!

Richard Quine had had many successes as a movie director in the 1950s and ’60s, but The Moonshine War marked the start (or maybe the middle) of his decline. His last film was the disastrous The Prisoner of Zenda in 1979, with the by-then-impossible Peter Sellers, who (according to Sellers’ biographer) went out of his way to humiliate the director. Dick Quine died in 1989, at the age of 68.

“There was a black guy that lived on his property, and he worked at NBC,” said Leonard. “And I ran into him. I was comin’ outta Chasen’s about 1992, and he came along on the street . . . and he told me that Quine had killed himself . . . shot himself. Yeah.”

Why?

“I dunno. Well . . . I suppose he wasn’t makin’ it anymore. He wasn’t working.”

It was a dreadful and violent final act — one better suited, one might have thought, to the bleakest fiction of Elmore Leonard.

Or John O’Hara.

THE ART OF BURNING BRIDGES | By GEOFFREY WOLFF | Knopf 400 pages | $30 hardcover

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