The Best and the Last of Edwin O’Connor
The Best and the Last of Edwin O’Connor is an act of homage. O’Connor died in 1968 at the age of fifty, his work a public success but still, in the artistic sense, incomplete, his possibilities unfulfilled. His last work includes some of his best, especially an unfinished story called “The Boy.” The argument between Grandfather and P.J. about eternal verity, in that story, is better than anything I recall from the big novels. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Edmund Wilson, and John V. Kelleher speak warmly of the man, his gaiety, the radiance of his friendship, but they do not say much of his art. Perhaps they feel that in the choice between perfection of the life and perfection of the work O’Connor chose the better part. In any case they testify to a remarkable man. Their book contains selections from all the novels, The Oracle, The Last Hurrah, The Edge of Sadness, I Was Dancing, All in the Family, with fragments of later writing, including a story called “Baldini” on which O’Connor collaborated with Mr. Wilson.
There is a passage in All in the Family where the narrator, Jack Kinsella, something of a novelist, is thinking of his books:
I think they were all good books of their kind: they were honest, decently plotted, with believable characters, and were reasonably well written. I was proud of writing them, in fact; I knew that not everyone could have written them, and indeed that many writers who were better than I could not have written them, either.
Kinsella is not O’Connor, but this seems to me a fair account of O’Connor’s novels. Except for The Oracle, which is merely a caricature, the novels are serious studies of the relation between people and institutions. O’Connor’s imagination was always concerned with the stress between an individual’s nature and the public terms in which it is defined. The Last Hurrah: or what happens when the institution itself changes, runs to a new style. The Edge of Sadness: a priest-physician who cannot heal himself. The Cardinal fragment: the good man bewildered in a bewildered Church. There is no fault in the themes, except that they are never brought to the pitch of their possibilities.
O’Connor was variously gifted, but his gift of language was not remarkable. Notice, for instance, how often he resorts to italics, desperate to be heard, as if he feared that the words, left to themselves, would die on the page. The Oracle parodies the rhetoric of the radio commentator, but it reads as if O’Connor were trying to clear his own head, getting rid of all the turgid language he had ever heard or used. When we lose faith in his major novels we find ourselves trying to imagine another language, since nothing less will answer, capable of dealing with the things which O’Connor has merely provoked. We feel that his language has let him down at the …