John O'Hara's Assembly (1961) is a collection of 26 short stories (including two novellas), all written during the summer of 1960. O'Hara is a genuinely fascinating figure in American literature: one of those quasi-commercial, quasi-literary best-selling giants that now seems, rather disappointingly, to be consigned to the second-hand shelf of history. Perhaps his two most famous works are his two earliest - Appointment in Samarra (1934) and BUtterfield 8 (1935), both of which were turned into film (the latter earning Elizabeth Taylor an Oscar for Best Actress in 1960). But O'Hara also wrote a dozen other novels and at least that many collections of short stories. He picked up the National Book Award for Ten North Frederick and was a regular columnist for Newsday and Colliers.
That said, O'Hara was also a bit of a grump. Perhaps most interestingly - and this is something shown in his stories over and over again - he was incredibly class-conscious. Although a promising student, the death of O'Hara's father left the young man unable to attend Yale. Whether intentionally or not, this disappointment is deeply embedded in his writing career: story after story about the noble 'haves' and their orbiting 'have-nots'. Like Fitzgerald, O'Hara had a knack - perhaps even an obsession - for describing the social elite: how they waft about, seemingly immune to the problems of lesser men and women. "O’Hara kept an unrelenting fist on the most trivial signs of social differentiation", says the New York Review of Books, and much of the pathos and the subtle drama of his stories comes from his descriptions of the daily life and micro-dramas of the 'four hundred', as well as their interactions with the middle-class rung right beneath him. Later in his career, and again based on his own experiences, O'Hara brought to life the parallels between the golden gods of the Old Rich and the new pantheon created by Hollywood.
Assembly is, on the whole, a collection of impressive stories, which makes their incomplete nature all the most frustrating. In O'Hara's introduction, he writes about the difference between novels and short stories - and how each stems from a very different act of creation, and never the twain shall meet and all that. Accordingly, each of the stories within Assembly is something meant to stand-alone - and they do - but O'Hara's definition of 'a complete tale' is also - perhaps deliberately - provocative. That is to say, a lot of these stories end very abruptly. They make sense, in their own way, and in many cases the central conflict is most thematically apt when it goes unresolved. But it is, literary merit be damned, really annoying.
Take, for example, the opening novella - "Mrs. Stratton of Oak Knoll". As many of these stories do, it takes some time in winding around to the central premise. Evan and Georgia Reese have been living in their New Jersey town for over ten years. They have a very comfortable life - he's a painter with some mild success, they have friends, and things are nice. One evening they're interrupted by a chauffeur, knocking at the wrong door. They piece together that their reclusive elderly neighbour (Mrs Stratton) has a wayward son who has returned home. This impression is reinforced by gossip from their own friends. Evan and Georgia grow more curious, and learn the complete history of their local patrician family - the Strattons owned everything, and, indeed, the Reeses' home used to belong to one of the Stratton cousins. Why has this fantastically wealthy family declined? Why has the heir fled to New York - and returned in the dead of night?
The novella winds around and around as Evan does a bit of detective work: with his friends, with the other residents of the town, and finally with Mrs. Stratton's son. The story effectively paints Mrs Stratton through her absence: we begin to understand this enigmatic 'noblewoman' through her history, her actions, her children and the social wake that she creates. Then, finally, Evan meets her. They have coffee, they chat and SCENE. [ARGH!]
Other stories with emotional cliff-hangers include "First Day in Town", about a pretentious stage actress and a debauched movie star, "The Properties of Love", about a long-burning romance, "The High Point", about a failing marriage, "The Weakness", about an aging boxer, and "The Free", also about a failing marriage, but with more crime involved. To various degrees, all of these leave the reader wanting more. Sometimes this is for the better (as in "The Free") and others, they just feel incomplete.
Fortunately, many of the stories have slightly less rarefied resolutions. "The Man with the Broken Arm" takes a minor social interaction between two entertainers and uses it as a means to explain everything that led up to that point - their past, their careers, their romance - and, eventually, resolve it with an equally minor (but extremely meaningful) encounter.
"The Girl from California" is equally domestic. A New Jersey native - now a movie star - returns home with his equally famous wife. It is the first time they've all met, and everyone is nervous. It is a tight little drama, with everyone somehow making both the best and worst impression they could.
"A Cold, Calculating Thing" features a seemingly 'normal' set of circumstances. A middle-aged woman lives with her elderly and demanding mother. The two cannot afford to live apart - at least, not while maintaining the style and class that their social position demands. Instead, they plot and connive against one another, desperately trying to maintain their own private spheres while being mashed together in one confined space. The story peels back layer after layer, surprising the reader at multiple turns. Ada Trimball seems a prim and proper woman, but has a rather active personal life. And her mother has even greater secrets.
"You Can Always Tell Newark" is also - rather shockingly - overt when it comes to the sexual shenanigans of the upper classes. A bachelor attends a tennis match and is drawn to a young woman who watches as a spectator. As he gossips with his friends afterwards about the decline and fall of the 'next generation', he realises that there's a good chance that the woman is his own illegitimate daughter. What began as a casual encounter now fascinates him, and torments him with what could've been. On the train ride back to the city, he sits with a young man - who is revealed to be his daughter(?)'s own lover. Despite the previous moaning and groaning about how the youf today are totally different, the two men have much in common.
One of the best in the collection is the brief "Exactly Eight Thousand Dollars Exactly", about the reunion between two brothers - one of which has become a business success. The 'villain hat' passes between the two repeatedly over the course of the story, and what should be an opportunity for redemption is sadly lost. It is, perhaps, paralleled by my other favourite, "The Compliment", in which the reunion of a man - also a successful businessman - and his first true love - becomes a showcase for basic human decency. If "Eight Thousand Dollars" demonstrates two men on opposite paths, with one trying to drag the other down, "The Compliment" is the reverse - a set of people with every opportunity to be mean, instead choosing to do otherwise.
Slightly more physical action occurs in a few of the stories. "It's Mental Work" takes place in 24 hours at a small bar. A bartender, the bar's owner and a 'hat-check' girl all scheme and plot and scheme and plot and then start all over again when the owner dies (of natural causes) during the night. Despite the well-crafted sleaziness of the characters, this is one of the more optimistic tales in the book, as the characters ultimately behave in a surprisingly chivalric (and entertaining) fashion.
Only one of the stories, however, is an outright thriller: "In a Grove". Two men reunite by accident, one is a failed screenwriter, the other is still a success in the industry. What begins as a happy circumstance turns into something far, far darker, as the differences between them become very clear. Over his career, O'Hara very rarely stumbled out of the literary and into more genre fiction - which is a shame. Stories like this, as well as his short novel The Farmer's Hotel, demonstrate that he was exceptional at writing more overt forms of suspense as well.
Despite the repeated focus on failing marriages and the secret lives of the elite, the 26 stories in Assembly do all feel very different and, in most cases, genuinely fascinating (occasionally too much so). Although they are not as, well, excellent as Fitzgerald or as overtly entertaining as John D MacDonald, these are still perceptive tales that describe a social world that's completely out of the reader's experience - a world of American nobility, social discretion and class that may no longer even exist. Although O'Hara does occasionally veer into the curmudgeonly, many of the stories contain an underlying optimism - a belief that dignity will ultimately triumph. Fifty years later, in an era of tabloids, Twitter and TMZ, that becomes an increasingly fantastic sort of notion.
Further reading -- You've got to admire this contemporary hatchet job from the Harvard Crimson - calling Assembly "a colossal waste of talent"