Catch-31

The Instrument

by John O’Hara
Random House, 297 pp., $5.95

A Bad Man

by Stanley Elkin
Random House, 336 pp., $5.95

Games of Chance

by Thomas Hinde
Vanguard, 255 pp., $4.95

First novels are generally treated with indulgent interest, second novels are approached with an anxious concern to see whether the author can keep up the level of his first, while third and fourth novels are inspected for signs of staying power. But by the fifth novel we begin to suspect that the author has been around rather too long. How then should we approach a thirty-first novel, if my rapid count of all the other titles by John O’Hara listed at the front of this book is correct? Once upon a time he wrote a good first novel, Appointment in Samarra, of which Walter Allen has remarked:

Appointment in Samarra is probably the best and most illuminating account we have of the class system of a white American town. It also—and here there is a real parallel with The Great Gatsby—catches exactly the feel and quality of life at a specific time in a specific place. On the evidence of Appointment in Samarra O’Hara ought, one feels, to have developed into a great novelist.

Perhaps Professor Allen was overstating O’Hara’s early promise: in the later novels, the hollowness which he admits is present in Appointment in Samarra has become more pronounced while the specificity of rendering has become more and more perfunctory. There is certainly no hint of greatness in The Instrument, not even much sociological interest, apart from some graphic pages about what goes on behind the scenes of a Broadway show.

O’Hara’s skills are, admittedly, much in evidence, well-oiled and smoothly running after more than thirty years’ practice. I imagine that the book’s opening paragraph will be analyzed in fiction-writing courses as a brilliant example of how a real professional brings it off—introducing the central character, telling one something about him, involving the reader in the action, and all in clear, direct, easy-to-read prose:

Yank Lucas fell asleep late one night and left the gas burning on the kitchen range. He was heating some water for coffee, and when the water boiled over it extinguished the flame and allowed the gas to escape. In a short while the odor of the gas passed under the door of Yank’s flat and out into the hall-way. Jiggs Muldowney, on his way upstairs, got a whiff of the gas and decided it must be coming from Yank’s flat. He did not know Yank Lucas, did not even know his name, was not sure who occupied the flat, did not want to get mixed up in anything.

Robert Yancey (Yank) Lucas, an aspiring playwright, is rescued from asphyxiation in the nick of time, and when he recovers he is able to finish the play which has hung him up by boldly introducing into the third act a similar bit of dramatic business with a gas stove. The play is a smash hit on Broadway, and after years of bitter poverty Yank finds himself comparatively rich; as a further reward he …

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Letters

Realism in the American Novel March 28, 1968