John O’Hara (1905 – 1970), the American novelist and short-story writer, was the son of a surgeon, Dr Patrick O’Hara. The father wanted the son to follow in the profession, but he would have none of it, even rejecting his father’s offer of $10,000 (a lot of money in those days) if he would do so. O’Hara junior said that he wanted to be a writer; his father said that no good would come of it.
O’Hara’s father died leaving the family impoverished, and it was this, O’Hara always claimed, that prevented him from going to Yale. Whether he would have gone if his father had lived is doubtful; he had been expelled from three schools for bad behaviour. But he resented it for the rest of his life.
O’Hara’s bad behaviour also lasted. He was a snob and a social climber, but also a nasty drunk inclined to bullying and violence. One critic said that no one who knew him ever liked him, although others have denied this. It is rare for anyone to be disliked by everyone.
Critical opinion is divided over the value of his work, some calling it little more than pulp fiction, but John Updike equated him with Chekhov. Certainly O’Hara himself had few doubts: he thought he ought to have won the Nobel Prize and arranged for an inscription on his tomb that he was the finest and most truthful writer of his age.
His first book, Appointment in Samarra, a fine portrayal of self-destruction, is regarded as his best; it was followed by his first collection of short stories, The Doctor’s Son, in the title story of which the great ’flu epidemic of 1918 in his home-town, Pottsville, is depicted with such accuracy that many of the inhabitants were not pleased. The doctor of the title is O’Hara’s father, who works himself to the point of exhaustion, though really he can bring little more than succour.
By 1956 O’Hara had mellowed a little, and his novella, A Family Party, consists entirely of the speech made at the retirement dinner of Dr Samuel G Merritt, who has worked as a doctor in the town of Lyons, Pennsylvania for forty years. The speech is made by his best friend, Mr Albert W Shoemaker, but is not without an undertow of acid, despite the predominantly elegiac tone. After an enumeration of the doctor’s virtues, we expect some final and dramatic revelation of a serious moral lapse or crime.
There is revelation, but of tragedy. Shoemaker speaks of Alice, the doctor’s wife, who is absent from the dinner. She had two children, one stillbirth, one premature. After the second, ‘her strength must have been more seriously affected than anyone realized’ and ‘she was subject to depression.’
In and out of a private hospital, she returned one day:
Sam brought a trained nurse back and we all made believe that the nurse was there to help Sam in the office, but then I guess the truth got to be known publicly when what we all know happened. One of her moods of depression and she jumped out of the second-story window. Broke both her legs, one arm.
For twenty-five years she has been asylum-bound and the doctor on his own.
There is an interesting period detail in the tale of quiet heroism. O’Hara wrote it at the height of the craze for frontal leucotomies, and Shoemaker says credulously:
Now they have operations that they can cure the kind of illness Alice had, but they didn’t have them then…