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 first show of trouble, and that only a miracle of language could now save him.
In his characters, too, O’Connor seemed content with stereotypes. Father Kennedy in The Edge of Sadness conducts his confession, reciting matters which, given half a chance, would be poignant to hear; but he is given the language of Going My Way, and his life converges upon that of Father Bing Crosby Fitzgibbon. He is a whiskey-priest, but The Edge of Sadness is not The Power and the Glory. Graham Greene has imagined his priest so profoundly that he has only to release him, letting him live by his own force in word and deed. The only force O’Connor gives Father Kennedy is the force of the typical: the priest, like everybody else, has problems.
O’Connor came upon his characters soon or late—I have no information on that count—but he wrote as if characters needed to be verified rather than imagined. He liked to go back over his old characters, setting them now in a strange world, as All in the Family goes back over The Last Hurrah, but he never allowed the risk to go beyond another version of the typical. There is evidence that O’Connor tried to do most of the novel’s work with character, but his imagination cared only for species and type. Reading the novels, we recognize many characters and situations, but the recognition is never a shock, the circle of the typical is never broken.
It is obvious that O’Connor was fond of broad effects. He was mainly interested in Irish-Americans, one of the broadest effects in American life. He liked to feel nostalgic for the bad old days, knowing they were bad and still, with half his heart, regretting that they could not survive. But he did not discover in South Boston anything more surprising than the predictable images already disclosed by rumor and gossip: his imagination merely confirmed the popular report. He once said of the relation between Mayor Curley of Boston and Frank Skeffington in The Last Hurrah that Skeffington had “more extensive capacities” than the historical gentleman; but none of those capacities made him anything more than a type. When it came to movie time, Spencer Tracy played Skeffington as a lovable old rascal. O’Connor hated the film, but he had only himself to blame.
The Best and the Last includes, from The Last Hurrah, the scene at Knocko Minihan’s wake, a good scene of its kind but not a work of art. The whole chapter is not worth two pages of Joyce’s “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” since art is in question. O’Connor wrote the chapter with all his might, but the last grace of style is missing, his language is a blunt instrument. In I Was Dancing Father Feeley says to Waltzing Daniel Considine, “Consciously or unconsciously, you were indicating contempt for the whole imbecilic milieu.” Well, I suppose it’s possible for any man to commit bad dialogue, but the sin here and elsewhere is O’Connor’s, and I hope Father Feeley has forgiven him. A few pages later Considine pays tribute to Wallace Beery as an actor; another good man for the broad effect.
O’Connor writes well about vaudeville and the old-time professionals; lively, knockabout stuff, well-timed, well-paced. Much of his own talent was of that kind. T. S. Eliot wrote of Kipling’s poems that they were intended “to elicit the same response from all readers, and only the response which they can make in common.” O’Connor’s novels are written, I think, with the same intention, as if he valued only the response which people make in common. If his books seem foursquare, the reason is that he left nothing to chance or risk, he never allowed a character to seize the book and run away, he would not even let his characters keep anything of themselves to themselves. Whatever is, is visible. There is no point in looking at those characters obliquely, hoping to find darkness and mysteries; they are only what they appear to be. The least that can be said for O’Connor’s characters is that they are lucid: and this is also the most that can be said of them.
I wonder what he thought of another priest’s man, J. F. Powers, a writer of an altogether different cloth, a verbalist. Perhaps O’Connor needed to convince himself that truth is a broad stroke. It is wonderful to see him and Mr. Wilson squaring up to a collaborative story. Both men were interested in magic, and their Baldini is a magician. Mr. Wilson wrote the first chapter, beginning with a hilarious scene between Baldini and Esmeralda:
She offered him a stuffed date. “Do they go with absinthe?” “I love them.”
The whole chapter is an essay in the art of Ronald Firbank, and it is great fun watching Mr. Wilson entertaining morbidity as one of three or four contending tones among which he has not yet made up his mind. But O’Connor turned these Wellfleet antics into vaudeville.
There is no doubt that O’Connor was writing well at the end, and “The Boy” is not at all broad. The improvement is clear, especially by comparison with the set piece chosen from All in the Family, the famous drowning scene. The unfinished fragment seems to me much more controlled, the language much sharper, more flexible. The Cardinal might have been good, too, but I doubt it; its feeling is too heavily compromised by The Edge of Sadness, those sad captains of the Roman Church. Again, it is a question of style…. I hope The Best and the Last will gain new readers for O’Connor, and that they will respond to his honesty. His world seems already to have died by its own hand, passing into history at once, abstract and allegorical.
And now Max Jamison arrives, “the dean of American critics,” according to Jack Flashman, who introduces him to Belle Robinson. The first scene is a First Night, and I assume we are not required to care very much for the play, the players, the critics, the audience. Mr. Sheed does not claim that the fate of the Free World depends upon Max Jamison or any of the remaining characters in his novel. Max is not a bad fellow and may well be a decent critic, but Mr. Sheed knows that such men come and go. Max is not the question. Just for appearances, Mr. Sheed gives him an ex-wife Helen, two sons Justin and Charlie, and several mistresses including Susan Cram and Eve Sample. Helen takes unto herself a barbarian painter, Gene Mungo. Max moves out, takes a job at Winslow College, goes on the lecture circuit, does one thing or another; but surely none of this is important.
I assume that the hero of the book, in any event, is Language, which occupies center stage from the first sentence, “It’s all very fine to say smoking in the lobby only, but have you seen the lobby lately?” Max’s integrity is supposed to be compromised by his writing for Now, and the fate of his soul seems to depend upon his continuing to write those finely perceptive pieces for the little magazine Rearview, but the judge in these matters, God the Critic, is the spirit of words. It is my impression that Mr. Sheed’s serious purpose is to be found in these terms; elsewhere we meet nothing but jokes. When the jokes stop, Mr. Sheed is found staring at all the important things in life as they pass before him on their way to the dump. Max has a rueful paragraph about these matters:
What about the ideas he had learned in college, with his mind like a switchblade and the zest for learning that Dad or someone had imbued him with, what about those ideas, huh? Irony had killed them all. One by one. Or they had killed each other, Sartre killing Freud, Marx killing Sartre—oh, always something else would come along shortly, but just behind that, the knife. Records are made to be broken. I used to be profound once, honestly. Then Mother died, and I had to give it up.
So they all go into the dark. Max is his own sharpest critic, the notices he gives himself are deadly, since a gift for language compels the lucky winner to use it in accordance with its bias; these images, this syntax, this prosody. “He was pestered these days by slatternly metaphors,” Max recognizes at the beginning, slatternly women being the next diversion. Thereafter, language comes to Max’s mind with offers of help: any service is available, but we specialize in sewage disposal, just call us any time at Irony Buildings.
The formal equivalent is the comic perspective. Max’s irony sees every shoddy thing as if it were part of some other equally shoddy enterprise. Now that language has taken over the work formerly done by law, authority, and doctrine, comedy is what remains of morality: instead of confessing our sins, we aim jokes at ourselves. Some of the early versions are athletic exercises. The critic moves in upon an aesthetic dispute:
A critic’s work was never done. In some houses, you would find a bright kid laying for you, wanting to shoot it out. In others, like this one, his word was law. Civilization had reached Tombstone. “What seems to be the trouble?”
Max, who has looked at many spectacles in the theater, gives himself the same treatment in the flesh. Thinking of making a pass at Janice, he writes the following lines for his wife, that lightning guide:
Look at Daddy now, children. Stumbling from woman to woman. Not because he wants them, but because they’re willing. This is the emptiness I was telling you about. Now on our right….
Running through some of the remaining possibilities, Max comes upon religion, reaches for his irony and, just behind that, the knife:
Makes no difference to God whether Max Jamison believes in Him or not. The Holy Ghost will bear me out on that, I think.
So one page flicks the next.
If this knife-work is based upon anything more than the availability of knives and a ready way to wield them, interested readers will find it, I think, in Chapter Nineteen. After an essay in free association, Max hoped that something would come unstuck, “that behind the ready-made phrases, strung like bracelets, there lurked something looser and more fluid.”
He did not believe in a real Self buried since childhood (you can’t bury something that deep and expect it to live), but in some kind of unformed substance from which a new self might be fashioned.
Two pages later he composes a Herzog-letter, unmailed, playing Lord Chester-field to his son, about the difficulty of things, the pain of growing up, absurd or not. “Even being mediocre isn’t that easy,” he tells the smart aleck. If I have read Mr. Sheed’s book aright, this is where the real feeling comes, and it makes a good novel of what otherwise would be merely another joke-book.