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The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O'Haraby Geoffrey Wolff
Synopses & Reviews
An enigma of twentieth-century literature–a writer accorded great importance in his time, if less than in his own mind–is here explored by one of our most versatile men of letters, a novelist and biographer ideally suited to the strange case of John O'Hara.
The accomplishments are undeniable: "the Region," the fictionalized coal-mining Pennsylvania of O'Hara's youth, serving his work much as Yoknapatawpha County did Faulkner's; an acute vernacular gift and a narrative frankness shocking in his day; an intimate, combative relationship with The New Yorker for over four decades; and a handful of books, from Appointment in Samarra to Sermons and Soda Water, that justify their author's ambitious claims. Moreover, he cut a wide swath through a Manhattan demimonde whose fierce friendships and bitter feuds–fueled by oceans of booze–were played out at such institutions as the Stork Club, “21,” and the Algonquin Round Table. But for all his best-sellers–one of which, Pal Joey, was a hit on Broadway, adapted by Rodgers and Hart–OHara had emerged in the wake of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, whose reputations buffeted his own. His preoccupations as a novelist of manners became dated as the world of speakeasies, the Social Register, Ivy League universities, and august clubs was inevitably undermined, while his prickly, status-obsessed outsider's personality failed to engage (and often enraged) changing fashions.
What Geoffrey Wolff reveals is not only the hugely complicated man in full but also his rightful place in our contemporary attention–a portrait of the artist that illuminates both the process of fiction and an era still vivid in our cultural history.
"In this keen, stylish, and often acerbic portrait Geoffrey Wolff accounts unsparingly yet sympathetically for O'Hara's (mostly self-induced) disappointments. O'Hara has been the recipient of three previous biographers' exhaustive scrutiny, and Wolff has wisely chosen to rely greatly on their research in writing his far more impressionistic and imaginative life study. He is especially perceptive, and wickedly funny, regarding O'Hara's obsessive fascination with the local and national WASP aristocracy (even if he at times too crudely conflates the two) and his attendant and perpetual sense of exclusion. And he makes clear just how social insecurity fueled O'Hara as an artist even though it hobbled him as a man." Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic review)
"[A] biography that is both satisfying and pleasingly unconventional....[N]ot a scholar's book but one by a fellow writer: it's conversational and opinionated — even autobiographical at times." Charles McGrath, The New York Times Book Review
"[A]n engrossing narrative....[A] clear-eyed analysis of O'Hara's gifts as an acute observer of social manners....This ameliorating biography will go a long way toward mending bridges between O'Hara and his reading public." Publishers Weekly
"[Wolff's] direct engagement is often quite charming and funny....Wolff is frank but generous about [O'Hara's] insecurities....By no means the final word on O'Hara, but an appealing piece of special pleading." Kirkus Reviews
Includes bibliographical references (p. 333-355) and index.
About the Author
Geoffrey Wolff is the acclaimed author of three works of nonfiction–Black Sun, a biography; The Duke of Deception, a memoir; and A Day at the Beach, a collection of personal essays–as well as six novels, most recently The Age of Consent. In 1994 he received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Mr. Wolff is the director of the graduate fiction program at the University of California, Irvine.
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