Stories by John O’Hara, Library of America, 860 pages, $40. There are a couple of unusual problems with this, the latest indispensable collection from the treasure house of the Library of America. John O’Hara’s story output was in the hundreds and the LOA obviously decided not to issue all the stories and novellas in a multivolume set (as they already have, for instance, such remarkable things as the music criticism of Virgil Thomson and the novels of Philip Roth.) So that leaves only one volume of 60 stories here chosen by Charles McGrath, former deputy editor of the New Yorker and a former staff editor of the New York Times Book Review. Under such circumstances, an introduction by the editor explaining the method of choice would seem to be crucial. But that’s not something the LOA ever does. So there’s no explanation of the choices made here.
That leaves the notable – even startling – omission of stories almost anyone might have a right to expect. If you look at the 1984 Random House edition of O’Hara’s collected stories, selected by Frank McShane, you’ll find, for instance, the obvious inclusion of “Pal Joey,” a classic ’30s O’Hara exercise which turned into a Broadway musical and, yes, ultimately a movie with Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth. You won’t find it in this LOA volume – or “The Gentleman in the Tan Suit” either, from the same era. Or such later stories as “Pig” or “Zero” either (all of which are in the smaller McShane collection.) No less than John Updike regarded O’Hara’s final story for the New Yorker “How Old, How Young” (1967) as one of his best. You’ll find it here but not in McShane. That’s a problem – one that only the complete O’Hara could have evaded but that would have taken many volumes (and, in truth, the publication of many mediocre and worse stories would be involved; the Complete O’Hara is immense and immensely uneven.)
So here we have first-rate work by the writer who undeniably created the New Yorker Story of the ’30’s and ’40’s (for an editor – Harold Ross – who disliked him.) His influence, therefore, on the later New Yorker masters – Cheever, Salinger and Updike – was huge. These, then by any assay, are cardinal American short stories. – Jeff Simon