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Authors: John O’Hara

Ten North Frederick

BOOK: Ten North Frederick
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JOHN O'HARA (1905–1970)
was one of the most prominent American writers of the twentieth century. Championed by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dorothy Parker, he wrote seventeen novels, including
Appointment in Samarra
, his first,
, which was made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor, and
Ten North Frederick
which won the National Book Award, and he had more stories published in
New Yorker
than anyone in the history of the magazine. Born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, he lived for many years in New York and in Princeton, New Jersey, where he died.

is the author of several novels, including
The Privileges
, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a contributing writer for the
New York Times Magazine
a National Magazine Award–nominated literary critic for
Harper's Magazine
, a former senior editor of the
Paris Review
, and the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He lives in New York.

Published by the Penguin Group

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First published in the United States of America by Random House, Inc.

This edition with an introduction by Jonathan Dee published in Penguin Books

Copyright ©
by John O'Hara

Copyright renewed
by Wylie O'Hara Doughty

Introduction copyright ©
by Jonathan Dee

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O'Hara, John,

Ten North Frederick / John O'Hara ; introduction by Jonathan Dee.

pages cm.—(Penguin classics)


I. Dee, Jonathan. II. Title.






Self-invention—its opportunities and its perils—is the classic theme of American literature, but the subversive genius of John O'Hara's
Ten North Frederick
is that the figure at its center, the late Joseph B. Chapin of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, hardly had to lift a finger to become who he was. One might say of Joe Chapin what was most famously said of the first President Bush: that he was born on third base and thought he'd hit a triple. Doted on by his mother, sent to all the right schools, inducted into his father's law firm, and mostly incurious about the wider world, Chapin manages to become the most prominent citizen of Gibbsville despite being, in the eulogistic words of one local, “a man who never did much.” While far from a bad guy—he's a reliable friend, an unusually good father to his nettlesome children, and a loyal husband to a woman who offers little warmth in return—he remains genially oblivious to his own lack of substance; indeed, over time he allows others' esteem of his social position to lure him into thinking of himself as someone with a capacity for greatness. That O'Hara can maintain readers' sympathy for such a figure—that Joe's ambition, even at its most absurd and self-deceptive, comes off as more of a tragic flaw than a moral failing—is a tribute not only to this always controversial writer's technical prowess, but also to the essential humanity for which he traditionally has received too little credit.

Class was always O'Hara's theme, especially in the novels. Against the grain of fundamental myths about American democracy, he chronicled the existence of an American social elite: the near impossibility of gaining entry to that world if you weren't born into it, and the difficulties of escaping it if you were. No detail was too arcane for him, and the sheer aggregation of detail reinforced his contention that, even in the New World, patrimony determines character a lot more than one might suppose. It is a broad, somewhat abstract subject about which it would be easy for a lesser author to come off as too dry or too obviously judgmental; what gives O'Hara's work such a wonderful volatility and emotional engagement is that he was able to write critically about the iron hierarchy of class without ever quite disbelieving in it himself. He was, in his well-documented personal life, painfully attuned to all the signifiers of what we might these days call the
Percent: It killed him, for instance, not to be able to say he'd attended Yale, even after his literary output had brought him more fame and fortune than any of his hypothetical Yale classmates could have claimed. It strengthens the work, somehow, that we aren't always able to distinguish confidently between O'Hara's own superficiality and his diagnosis of ours.

Thus he was able to write about Joseph Chapin in a way that was clear-eyed but never wearyingly ironic. Realizing the dream of his creator, Joe goes off to Yale, and is even tapped for a secret society. Heeding his father's advice, after law school he returns to Gibbsville rather than risk being treated like a rube in a bigger city like New York or Philadelphia. He marries a local girl from a good family, proposing to her in a fit of emotion after she almost dies from appendicitis. He merges the family law firm (again, on his father's advice) with the firm his childhood friend Arthur McHenry inherited from
father. (Arthur—more complicated and iconoclastic than his friend and partner, and with a life more touched by misfortune—is one of the few characters in this densely populated book whom O'Hara seems genuinely to admire.) Success follows upon success, without a great deal of effort on Joe's part. Even when his daughter, Ann, provokes a potential social scandal by falling in love with a traveling musician, Joe takes care of it primarily by asking someone more practical than himself to take care of it. And when, as a forty-something dauphin of a town he has almost never left, he reveals to his intimates that the secret ambition of his autumnal years—despite his never having held, or even run for, elective office of any kind—is to become president of the United States, it seems less a function of ego run amok than one might think. It's not that Joe feels he
be president; it's more a case of why
he be? Each of the blessings that make up his exceptionally comfortable life has come to him not because he seized it but because the circumstances of his birth, together with his failure to question or controvert any of the duties that were expected of him, have entitled him to it. Having never encountered, in the first two-thirds of his life, any upper limit to that entitlement, why should he assume the limit exists at all?

Ironically, Joe's very lack of substance is what gives some credence, at first, to his viability as a politician. “A good old name,” says the local political fixer Mike Slattery in enumerating Chapin's virtues:

[P]lenty of money that wasn't stolen, at least stolen outright, and a handsome fellow with a good education. Married. Two young children. Protestant, but not an A.P.A. [American Protective Association, a virulently anti-Catholic organization of the day]. No scandals anywhere in the family. . . . I told him the party needs young men like him, and if ever I spoke a true word in the form of flattery, that was it.

From the start, the hale and ruthless Slattery sees Joe's limitations in a way of which Joe himself is incapable. Yet somehow there's never anything incredible or pathological about Joe's self-esteem—because it's the setting itself, much more than the interior dictates of character, that has distorted his psychological mirror. Gibbsville—too big to be a town, too small to be much of a city—is made almost overwhelmingly concrete by O'Hara, not just in this book, it should be noted, but also throughout his oeuvre. Late in the novel the reader is treated to a cameo appearance by Julian English, the intemperate son of the Chapins' kindly old family doctor; he shows up just long enough to cause a minor scene, one with an undertone of heartbreak for those who have read O'Hara's first novel,
Appointment in Samarra
in which Julian's fate is played out.

Gibbsville was O'Hara's Yoknapatawpha, and he knew it with intimidating depth. No aspect of it, no ritual or visual correlative to its network of social relations, escapes his confident attention, from the measurements of the Chapins' front door to the differences in adults' greetings of others' children based on the prominence of those children's families. At times
Ten North Frederick
has an almost rambling quality, a tendency to indulge its own extraordinary scope that in another novel might seem gratuitous but here paradoxically reassures us of the author's total control of his material. At any time he can relocate his narrative point of view anywhere within it. Several of
Ten North Frederick
's best scenes have only the slimmest connection to the story at hand: the long postfuneral conversation between school superintendent Carl Johnson and his wife, for example, which if nothing else demonstrates that there is such a thing as a happy marriage in Gibbsville.

But to talk too much about the unparalleled level of detail in O'Hara's work actually gives him too little credit as a literary artist. Some novelists—Woolf, or Joyce, or O'Hara's strange bedfellow in class-consciousness John Dos Passos—assert their intention to experiment with form and style so immediately that the dramatic content of their work must operate in that intention's shadow; but the books I've always liked best are the stealthy ones, the ones whose smooth style and comfortably realistic surface conceal the radical nature of their approach to form.
Ten North Frederick
's construction is sneakily bizarre, all the more so because O'Hara's ease and pace keep you from noticing for quite a while that anything odd is going on. The novel opens with what seems like a conventional, biopic-style flash-forward scene on the afternoon of Joseph Chapin's funeral—a simple framing device, to all appearances, which will soon give way to the expected long flashback—but then that scene extends on and on, for days, and its shifts in point of view mushroom. We check in on everyone, from the Chapins' adult children to the family servants to Joe's pallbearers (lower-class tradesmen, interestingly, who are paid for their services) to the governor of Pennsylvania. It's like watching a juggler: He starts with three balls, and you think, “Well, that seems like something I could figure out how to do myself,” but by the time he gets up to eight or ten, you've dropped your cynicism and let wonder take over. And as that present-tense opening scene approaches the hundred-page mark, you also begin to wonder, just in dramatic terms, what the stopping point is. Perhaps the frame we thought was there, isn't? Maybe the novel will simply continue to march forward in time and poor dead Joe will never live within it at all? Only then—after a series of petty phone calls between prominent Gibbsvillians arguing over credit for an initiative to put up some unspecified sort of bust or plaque in Joe's honor—does the last line of what turns out to have been O'Hara's massive prologue land like a punch: “Joseph B. Chapin was finally dead. They had started fighting over him.”

 • • • 

In the fifteen years between this novel's publication and his death in
, O'Hara arguably wrote too much too quickly, and he was infamous for his unwillingness to revise his work, even at the behest of his editors at the
New Yorker
, where he published more short stories than any other writer in the magazine's history. But the real reason he didn't, and doesn't, get sufficient credit for his formal and technical excellence (as opposed to his knack for story) is that—like Hemingway or Raymond Carver or other authors associated with stylistic restraint—he made his own work look deceptively simple, and the main reason readers experience O'Hara that way has to do with his heavy reliance on dialogue. To some, writing dialogue just doesn't seem enough like Writing—maybe because of its necessary double fidelity: It's not just the author's voice we're hearing in dialogue, but also that of the character. In fact, the author's voice is often a kind of junior partner in that relationship; if a line of dialogue doesn't sound organically enough like the character him- or herself speaking, that's rightly counted as a failure.

It's true that late in his career O'Hara's short fiction became almost purely dialogue—screenplay-like, really—which wasn't the best use of his gifts. It could seem perfunctory, if not lazy. But in
Ten North Frederick
O'Hara is at the height of his command of this undervalued technique. His more Jamesian mode is certainly on full display as well, as in this excerpt from Joe's wife's reminiscence of their courtship:

His manners were exquisite even in a day when good manners were the rule. But she became convinced of his unsureness of himself when she had her instinctive realization of his virginity. With that knowledge she encouraged him to talk to her and to reveal himself without quite exposing himself. On matters pertaining to the law and honor and religion they were on safe ground; in her company he became an authority on everything they discussed, and above all they were not there to argue.

The finest distinctions of interiority were not foreign or intimidating to O'Hara. Yet whenever his characters are speaking, their dialogue is the only writing on the page. There are no stage directions, no pauses for thought or description, barely any speech tags. To be honest, this is something that in my own career as a writing teacher I have many times warned students to stop doing. But somehow O'Hara pulls it off. Look, for instance, at the scene wherein Lloyd Williams seduces Ruth Jenkins while a passenger in her car:

“Ruth, you told me some secrets.”

“Yes. I don't know if that was such a good idea.”

“Yes it was. I'm great at keeping secrets.”

“Well, just so you keep those.”

“Something inside you allowed you to tell me them. Is that right?”

“I guess so.”

“You know so. I want to ask you something.”

“Is it personal?”

“Yes, personal and secret.”

There is a lot more of interest going on in that moment, surely, than speech. Yet O'Hara, even though he plainly could, offers us none of it. Why?

For an answer we might look at a rough contemporary of O'Hara's whose work in most respects could not be more unlike his: William Gaddis, author of
The Recognitions
, and one or two other long, nearly impenetrable classics of modernism, a writer famously nicknamed, in a
New Yorker
essay by Jonathan Franzen, “Mr. Difficult.” Gaddis's novels consist almost entirely of dialogue, nearly always without speech tags or even quotation marks. Unlike O'Hara, Gaddis needs to be read slowly and carefully just to be understood at all. He was asked by his
Paris Review
interviewer why he would make this demanding choice—why he would throw the entire burden on his characters' speech rather than just, you know, tell the story: “To make the characters create themselves,” he answered, “which is true of movies or the stage, and essentially of life itself. . . . Authorial absence so that the characters create the situation.”

And O'Hara is a master at that technique, in all its unexpectedly various modes. He creates and deepens the character of “Paul Donaldson from Scranton,” for instance, by rendering without comment the contrast between that seemingly harmless provincial nebbish's speech in a public setting and in a private one. O'Hara's dialogue comes in such great slabs that he is unafraid to create minor-key emotional effects by letting his characters misspeak or babble: There's something mysteriously moving, for instance, about Joe's father, poststroke, in the midst of the last conversation he will ever have with his son, spilling a bit of his drink on the carpet and saying, “Waste not, want not. I don't know why I said that. It doesn't apply. But as I was saying . . .” And he brutally reframes our perspective on his own main character simply by recording a conversation between Mike Slattery and his wife in which Joe's fate becomes intertwined with their household business of the day:

BOOK: Ten North Frederick
4.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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