Sunday, September 7, 2003
In "The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O'Hara," Geoffrey Wolff has accomplished an extraordinary feat: He has written a touching biography of a pugnacious and difficult man.
O'Hara, a novelist and short-story writer, produced best-selling books from the 1930s through the '60s. His writing brought him wealth and fame, and several of his novels were made into films, including "Butterfield 8," "From the Terrace," "Ten North Frederick" and "Pal Joey." Toward the end of his life, he lived in Princeton, N.J., and drove a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III with the vanity plate "JOH 1."
Yet he was always restless and unsatisfied, a man of great insecurities and pretensions. The son of a physician, he grew up in rural Pennsylvania, a region he memorialized in his fiction, much to the distress of the citizens of Pottsville, his hometown.
As a youth, O'Hara was expelled from numerous schools and was a great disappointment to his father, whose last words were, "Poor John," a legacy that may be in part responsible for his often unstable and belligerent personality. Add to this the fact that O'Hara's acquaintances were the Nobel Prize-winners Hemingway and Steinbeck, and you have a story rife with tension, ambition and disappointment, all the elements for a fascinating drama.
"The Art of Burning Bridges" is an account of O'Hara's life and career, but, like the best work in this genre, it is also an account of an era, a time when the Kinsey report on sexual behavior made hot reading and O'Hara's bedroom scenes stirred wild controversy. Further, Wolff carefully elucidates his subject's fiction, appraising the arc of his career, from the well-shaped early novels to the tomes of his later life. (A valuable service is a listing of O'Hara's best short stories.)
What sets this biography apart is that Wolff tells the tale as a writer, not simply as a critic. And Wolff is a perfect match for his subject. He notes in his introduction that he was intrigued by O'Hara's similarity to his own father, whom Wolff wrote about so compellingly in his memoir, "The Duke of Deception." His strategy is born and not made: Wolff the writer is intrigued by O'Hara the writer, and it is the reader's good fortune to be able to share in this writer-to-writer investigation.
Thanks to Wolff's clear eye and lively prose, there's not a dull moment in the book. Sure, the subject makes engaging material from the start, but Wolff's prose is a great pleasure. His sentences sing with life and grace. He is one of the few writers who bears rereading just for the pleasure of the syntax of his sentences and the structure of his paragraphs.
Wolff recounts O'Hara's life with vigor and specificity. He appreciates O'Hara's pure affection for his daughter and is astounded by his acts of belligerence toward almost everyone else.