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JOHN O'Hara's latest work, Assembly, is another colossal waste of talent. For years, we have waited for O'Hara to live up to the considerable promise he showed in Appointment in Samarra and Butterfield 8; but, with an occasional exception, he has been content to turn out slick, meaningless potboilers.
Of the 26 short stories in Assembly, only three are particularly good. The rest are mediocre, bland, and forgettable. They are, at least, easy to read, because O'Hara possesses a writing style that is always fluid and entertaining. His fast-moving, uncomplicated, pleasant prose will always find a publisher; but work dealing with the same ideas and content, expressed haltingly, would get shoved down its author's throat. And it is because of this same magnificent facility that those who have had hopes for O'Hara are so frustrated at his refusal to grapple with larger challenges than the unseen sex life of Gibbsville, Pa.
In Assembly, O'Hara is at his best in "The Cellar Domain," a portrait of the tight, status-conscious little world of Peter Durant's barber shop, and the tale of its destruction. Durant, the head barber, runs his miniature community with a social-register sense of propriety. Certain customers get preference over others, and some are told, when they begin to realize they are being ignored, "Better go down the street. You got a good barber down towards the rail-road station." Those who finally make the inner circle are fitted for the symbol of acceptance--a $2 beer mug. It is a neat, compact little world, but Peter's fondness for a local loudmouth eventually blows it apart.
Two other stories-- "Mary and Norma" and "First Day in Town"--also come off well. In both, O'Hara's celebrated sense of the language, which is actually defective a good deal of the time, produces unmatchable dialogue. And the characters--the two hateful, cheating wives in "Mary and Norma" and the two young movie stars in "First Day in Town"--have a life and a freshness that so many of O'Hara's other people lack.
But O'Hara has a way of turningout long, disorganized and absolutely pointless short stories. Words come so easily to him that he just writes and writes with little thought to the direction he is taking. Presumably, these aimless rambles are supposed to be catching the spirit of an era, or painting an unforgettably quaint character; but all too often they just wander.
The first story in Assembly, a 63-pager called "Mrs. Stratton of Oak Knoll," typifies this shortcoming, and it is enough to makes less patient readers heave the volume through a window. For 63 pages, nobody says anything or does anything of the slightest interest to anybody, and all these precious people stumble in and out of each other's houses to no purpose. Finally, without ever getting off the ground, "Mrs. Stratton of Oak Knoll" ends. That's one thing in its favor.
Unfortunately, Assembly is loaded with this sort of story, although, happily, none of the others can approach "Mrs. Stratton" for length. Apparently though, O'Hara felt guilty about including so many uneventful tales, for he tries to make up for it with several others in which all kinds of wild, unbelievable things happen in every paragraph.
For instance, in "A Cold, Calculating Thing," it turns out that Ada Trimball's mother once slept with Ada's prospective beau to win him away from "a little chippy" for her daughter. (It didn't work.) In "In a Grove," Richard Warner goads an old enemy, William Grant, into sleeping with his new Mexican bride after lots of dirty talk, and then drills them both.
The trouble with all this is that it's too easy. It does require a certain gift to be able to think of these things, but merely conjuring them up is not enough. The ground must be laid for these occurrences, and their causes must be woven into the story and into the actions of the characters. O'Hara refuses to do this, and thus these stories are pulp-magazine fare.
One of the first things a student learns in English C is not to put enigmatic, infinitely wise, mysterious last lines on the ends of short stories. The attempt to give a story greater significance by attaching a pseudo-meaningful tag to it, simply doesn't work. But O'Hara can't resist this childish practice. "The High Point" ends:
"Yes, that ought to give me plenty of time. Ruth?"
And "The Man with the Broken Arm" concludes:
"'It didn't work out quite as we expected,' said Breckenridge, sitting at my table.
"'What does?' I said."
These exit lines, like so much of recent O'Hara, make readers laugh unintentionally. And when they're laughing at you instead of with you, you aren't doing very well
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