National Book Award Winners, part 9: 1956’s Ten North Frederick, by John O’Hara.

4 Sep

1.

In 1956, John O’Hara won the National Book Award for his multi-generational novel Ten North Frederick. He was an enormous literary figure in his day, a critical[1] darling, a best-selling popular novelist, and rich, with magazine work and Hollywood money flooding in. He was considered a major talent, insightful, honest, and artful.

A scant fifty years later, he’s universally panned, reviled, and dismissed. Few people read him, fewer still study him. He’s been relegated to the dustbin, with the possible exception of his first novel, Appointment in Samarra. All of his other books are out of print.

Samarra made him famous; he was 30 when it was published. It’s a sex-crazed crackerjack of a book, the story of a man’s dissolution in a small town. Samarra is a boozy, depraved little book. Almost every scene involves characters talking about sex, without using any of the red flag words. It’s fun to read, in a dirty book sort of way. Contemporary critics considered him an updated, more modern version of Sinclair Lewis, a writer who could delineate the often invisible social ills that cause so much misery.

And he is a vicious satirist. His primary targets are small-city American citizens. His characters are envious, malicious, spiteful, oversexed (or tragically undersexed—a thin, reductionist Freud haunts O’Hara’s work), driven to madness by the pursuit of sex and its withdrawal. His characters are small-minded, misanthropic. His characters wear two faces, one to the public, and an even nastier face when alone. His deconstruction of the small-town, upper middle class mind is a sight to behold. He wrings out the privilege of his white collar characters and leaves them heaving with lust, vindictiveness and often suicidal despair.

2.

Or, perhaps, he’s just vicious.

O’Hara the man was a rapacious social climber with hedonistic tendencies, an ego the size of Manhattan, and a penchant for bad living. He was insecure, oafish, mean-spirited and humorless in relation to his own work. (He said he wanted his tombstone to begin, “He wrote better than anyone.”)

He drank. He philandered. He corrupted. By all accounts he was rude, crude and difficult, whiny, self-important and self-indulgent.

Even his supporters recognize a vile intelligence behind his books. He’s seething with contempt for his own creations. He seems to enjoy the psychic squirming of his characters. Little flourishes of decency seem like audience-pleasing affectation.

Which makes his personal life all the more relevant to his fictions. He isn’t insightful, he’s punishing. He’s similar, in an oblique way, to that great southern blowhard, Erskine Caldwell. They both are remembered for early novels. (Most people know Caldwell by Tobacco Road; a few might know God’s Little Acre.) Both write cartoonish women, trashy harpies driven mad by desire, or frigid schoolmarms who need a real man to loosen them up. Both were seen as artists while alive, hacks after they passed. Both are, to 21st century eyes, cringingly offensive, sexist, yet banal.

O’Hara probably belongs somewhere near the middle of the not-terrible novelists. He can write with clarity. He often writes crisp, lean sentences. His characters speak with authenticity. He’s fun to read. He’s lurid, creepy, and perverted, yet dressed up in the fineries of a literary novelist. But there are dozens of lurid, creepy novelists who have written much better books[2].

 

3.

So, no surprise, Ten North Frederick is not a great book. It has lengthy descriptions of minor characters, hazy geographical details about the fictional town. Parts of it feel like a screenplay. How the characters all fit together is elusive. His goal in writing it is clear; he wants to destroy small-town pieties with a battering ram. He mostly succeeds. But the story meanders. It ambles. He spends too much time on silly background and not enough in the moment. When the various storylines start to pop into place, the major issues are sex, infidelity, sex, and more sex. It’s a less substantial, oddly written version of The Wapshot Chronicle[3].

Not horrible, just not good.

Not horrible, just not good.

The main characters are a married couple named Edith and Joe. The novel begins with Joe’s death, a big town funeral, and then follows the various attendees, including Edith and their two children, as they leave the funeral. The narrative bounces backwards and forwards in time. There are some intriguing passages. There are dalliances, betrayals, reversals, scandals.

But not much seems to happen.

Edith and Joe, as O’Hara tracks them back and forth across time, emerge as complex people. Edith in particular has her refined, decent air stripped away to reveal a toxic, repugnant center.

O’Hara is a fine writer of dialogue. But, there’s little warmth, understanding or insight. Frederick is haunted by a pretty silly Freudian subtext, with uptight women and sexually frustrated men.

Here’s a sample:

 

Under the unwritten rules of the time, Ben [no relation] could have beaten and raped his wife with impunity; the screams of violently abused women were heard not only in the poorer districts of the town, where, to be sure, they were heard more frequently. . . . A gentleman did not force his attentions on a lady; the lady protected the gentleman’s pride by pleading a splitting headache or by telling him it was her time of the month.

I don’t need to do a close reading to parse out the problematic issues here.

The book does end on a high note. The last forty pages or so has an unnamed biographer examine the last years of Joe’s life. The tone is elegiac, melancholic and far superior to the other 300-plus pages. The writing is stronger. The characters are more defined. O’Hara clearly wrote it at a different time than the rest of the novel.

But it isn’t enough. John O’Hara’s principle virtue is his raunchy tastelessness. He could have made a great American pervert. But he sought accolades and acceptance instead.

4.

1955, unlike the three previous years, was a dynamite year for fiction. William Gaddis published The Recognitions; Nikos Kazantikas released The Last Temptation of Christ; Patricia Highsmith put out The Talented Mr. Ripley; Paul Bowles published The Spider’s House; Eudora Welty put out The Bride of the Innisfallen; and Robert Penn Warren released Band of Angels. The Brits were still marching: John Wyndham, Evelyn Waugh, William Golding, and Graham Greene all published major novels[4].

All of which would make Frederick seem quaint and forgettable, a flash in the pan misfire that won the top award through moxie or luck. But, this same year, Flannery O’Connor released her short story collection A Good Man Is Hard To Find. It’s her best collection, stories that possess a wild manic energy, and yet are somehow economical, elegant and controlled. Just about any single story from this collection is better, and more important, than O’Hara’s entire oeuvre.

It gets worse. J.P. Donleavy published The Ginger Man, one of the greatest comic novels in the English language, a tragic, hilarious, heart-breaking romp through the squalor and foppery and depravity of a narcissistic American slumming in Ireland. The Ginger Man is one of the direct inheritors of Ulysses, only it’s more streamlined, tauter, and way more fun to read. A fantastic, vibrant novel that embraces its joyous perversion. Donleavy could write circles around O’Hara.

But the biggest scandal of them all: in 1955, Vladimir Nabakov published Lolita. Lolita is rightly considered one of the masterpieces of 20th century fiction. You could scour the entire planet and not find a single person who believes O’Hara should have been awarded the top writer’s award over Nabakov, Donleavy, and O’Connor.

Shameful.

Glad to leave O’Hara behind. Onward and hopefully upward.


[1] Even though plenty of his contemporaries saw through his bullshit.

[2] Ian McEwan, Iris Murdoch, Paul Bowles, Horace McCoy, Cormac McCarthy, John Hawkes, Nick Cave, Anais Nin, Celine, Genet, George Bataille, any of a thousand French authors . . .

[3] Cheever was a drunkard, cruel to his wife, an unabashed philanderer who blamed his dalliances with younger men on his wife being overweight. But Cheever could write like a mad genius and had enormous empathy for his characters.

[4] Golding published The Inheritors, his biggest misfire, although an interesting failure; it follows a clan of the last Neanderthals as the Cro-Magnons are inheriting the earth. Better than it sounds.

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