The Ewings

By Michael O’Hara

(Random House; $6.95)

I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him, and was wrong on both counts. This is John O'Hara's last finished novel but not the last of the finished work that he left; and there's no point in pretending that he didn't know his job. That job is of some interest in American literary history.

Through most of his career, even those who disliked O'Hara's work conceded that he was a sharp social historian, a ruthless investigator of sexual mores and a connoisseur of cultural data. Many, including myself, then went on to say that he was in effect merely an aggrandized stenographer with narrative skills, an enervated tag-end of naturalism being maintained for its own exploitative sake. There is no grand revision in order for O'Hara, no great quarrel to be picked with the serious consensus about him, but this last novel is at least an occasion to mark his merits, along with the rest of him, and to note that a certain kind of writing energy is now absent from the literary scene.

In his first two pages O'Hara displays his technique, his perception, his cheapness, his power to keep you reading. First page:

     It was a four o'clock wedding,which gave the bride
     plenty of time to change her clothes and make the
     eight-fifteen to Detroit, which made connection with
     the nine-fifty to New York. But instead of taking the
     nine-fifty to New York, the couple took the train for
     Chicago, which left fifteen minutes later, and meant
     that they did not have to spend their wedding night
     on a train.

I'd stake my life, without looking up the details, that O'Hara was accurate about this 1913 train schedule. In a long line of lesser novelists following Balzac, he showers facts on us to fix era and custom and also to show his bona fides, to persuade us that a writer who takes such trouble with details must be reliable in all matters and must have a story to tell. Then, on the second page, comes the other half of the O'Hara one-two punch. He says of the bridal couple:

     There was something in the atmosphere of New York,
     the foreignness of it, that brought them together and
     relaxed them, and Edna even had her first bowel movement
     in four days.

I laughed when I read it, both because of the intended anti-romantic jolt and because it showed that O'Hara was still in good form. One of his basic techniques is to weave a web of social convention, then lift it to reveal sex or scatology. In old-time burlesque there was a standard gag in which a girl walked out sedately in a hoopskirt, then strong lights came on behind her to outline her legs and bottom. That's a not over-simple analogy with O'Hara.

This time the main setting is Cleveland and the main characters are lawyers and their wives. The period is the First World War. Bill Ewing gets married, turns down a law job in New York on his honeymoon and comes home just in time to see his lawyer-father die. Page seven! O'Hara uses death better than Nero. We feel that, with the successful father dead and the young pair stepping into prospects, the word Beginning is writ large. Another writer might have felt he had to cook up some trouble for the Ewings: not O'Hara. The couple lose one child in the diphtheria epidemic, otherwise everything is clear sailing. O'Hara holds our interest with the very clearness of the sailing, feeding our vicarious ambitions with Bill's professional cleverness, his happy marriage, his steady progress. The variations --not exactly drama--come from their friends and from Bill's mother. There's a wicked German scientist, there's a suicide and a murder, and there's homosexuality, both latent and blatant. Bill's mother, widowed in her early fifties, rich and handsome and lonely, virtually kills an old friend with heart trouble by performing fellatio on him, then discovers the discretions of lesbianism and goes off to live in California with another rich widow.

The sex details raise matters of veracity quite different from railroad timetables or the long parade of vintage automobiles. How does O'Hara know that Bill Ewing, in 1915 or so, would have reacted so calmly to the news of his mother's homosexuality? Or that the mother herself would have reacted so calmly to frank language used by a seducer? O'Hara doesn't know, of course; he imagines it because he enjoys imagining it and because he knows, quite well, that his readers want him to imagine it. It's one of the increments of a long author-reader relation. His readers have learned, through personal observation and experience, that much of his contemporary sexual detail is accurate, so they take O'Hara's historical sex on trust, even though very few people now alive know how a middle-aged Mrs. Ewing of that day would have reacted to four-letter words in a sexual moment. There's no history of such matters to be checked, and O'Hara himself was born in 1905. (However, novelists of the future may check O'Hara, among others, for such details about the present!)

And what does it all come to? Count all the merits: the skillful selection of scene and focus, the paring-off of fat, the deftness of transition, the skill in making us accept innumerable viewpoints, the character sketching (with the Ewings themselves the least vivid, incidentally), the rhythmic recurrence of narrative pulses to keep the story moving, the close-fitting jersey pullover of minutiae that clings to the body of the book--and then what? At first there's an impulse to put The Ewings in the class of American expose, the line of Hawthorne and O'Neill and Grace Metalious that discloses the truth behind respectable facades. Then it's clear that expose, disturbance, alteration are not remotely what O'Hara is after; that essentially he's telling us all's right with the world, that Pippa may screw a little as she passes but she's still caroling that God's in his heaven, and that the Protestant ethic, battered but dependable, will bless us as we go.

There is a line of American novelists, realistic In tenor but sentimental in gist, of whom O'Hara is the descendant. William Dean Howells may be best of breed, but O'Hara is closer to Booth Tarkington. From The Magnificent Amhersons:

     In that town, in those days, all the women who
     wore silk or velvet knew all the other women
     who wore silk or velvet, and when there was a
     new purchase of sealskin, sick people were got
     to windows to see it go by.

It's the O'Hara tone. The obvious difference between the two authors is that Tarkington was socially and sexually sentimental, while O'Hara goes through Cleveland yanking down bloomers and ripping open flies. But many elements in the two men are similar--family ties that bind and loose, youthful romances traced to unromantic conclusions--and the principal theme is the same: money as progress, money as the mainstream by which, perhaps with a coyly helpless shrug, one is carried along. Vernon Parrington described Tarkington's general thesis: "Life is an agreeable experience--to the successful, hence it is well to rise." It seems equally true of O Hara.

The most interesting question raised by O'Hara's death (in 1970) is whether he will be replaced, whether we will get another high-grade popular naturalist pouring out one heavily detailed novel after another, ostensibly giving us the low-down on American society, making his ruthlessness plausible by his commanding technique, his frightening eye and ear, his pleasantly insulting insistence on the dirtiness of sex; and yet for all his Diogenes air, a celebrant of the status quo.

Seventeen novels and eleven volumes of short stories. (Among the latter are some of the best stories ever written about Hollywood, not just a writer's revenge on the studios.) When a man has written that much as well as O'Hara and has' been as widely read, his disappearance leaves a gap. My chief curiosity about that gap is to see whether any new author has the energy to fill it--not to mention the professionalism--to patrol that area of the print spectrum; because the popularity of an adroit, nasty, industrious, superficial but intelligent writer like O'Hara was a tribute, in its way, to the very idea of the novel.

Stanley Kauffman is the film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann