The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O'Hara

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9780679427711: The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O'Hara
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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–O’Hara 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.

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From the Back Cover:

“Odd, provocative, immensely thoughtful and illuminating.”
–André Bernard, The New York Observer

“Both satisfying and pleasingly unconventional . . . The Art of Burning Bridges is from beginning to end not a scholar’s book but one by a fellow writer.”
–Charles McGrath, The New York Times Book Review

“Keen, stylish . . . and wickedly funny . . . Wolff offers a remarkably sure and nuanced reading of O’Hara’s best work.”
–Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly

"Wolff stays amused and intrigued by his subject, and he conveys this appealing sense of engagement to the reader with the full force of his research and wit."
--John Skoyles, Associated Press

“Masterful . . . Wolff limns the marks of genius . . . A sophisticated and candid portrait.”
–Bryce Christensen, Booklist

"Unfashionably forgiving . . . Imaginative . . . Excellent storyteller that he is . . . Wolff's resolute subjectivity, in the face of evidence he himself has scrupulously assembled, is ultimately what makes The Art of Burning Bridges such a moving success on its own partisan terms."
--Jonathan Dee, Harper's Magazine
"Wolff makes a compelling case that O'Hara . . . turned the obsession with being an outsi9der into a strength, becoming one of America's finest novelists of manners.
"Passionate and strongly argued . . . A narrative that keeps us on our toes through a voice that stays engaged by its subject."
--William H. Pritchard, Chicago Tribune
"Geoffrey Wolff is a splendid writer . . . This is a greatly entertaining book . . . an important biography."
--The Newark Star-Ledger
"An intelligent and engaging account of what makes writers tick."
--Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Admirable . . . The Art of Burning Bridges is interesting because it's more than a biography of O'Hara. Wolff, a noted novelist and biographer, spent 10 years researching and writing the book, and it shows. He's amassed fascinating detail about the social history of Pennsylvania coal country. He shares his jaundiced views on the cultural market in Hollywood. He's engaging and combative about relations between writers, editors and critics. And he's eloquent and persuasive in describing how the structure and language of stories move us as deeply as they sometimes do. Wolff also provides a brilliant defense of the novel of manners in America."
--Vernon Peterson, The Oregonian
"Wolff presents O'Hara so intimately that we, too, find ourselves on his side, even when O'Hara is at his silliest."
--David Kirby, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"The curmudgeonly author of the classic Appointment in Samarra gets splendid treatment by Wolff."
--Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Geoffrey Wolff's biography is patient and graceful. He duly but lightly reports on O'Hara's endless truculence and boorishness, while managing to leave him his dignity."
--Larry McMurtry, The New York Review of Books
"A useful if decidedly idiosyncratic biography, told in a conversational, even breezy style."
--Roger K. Miller, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
"Wolff earns our trust . . . The puzzles that confront any biographer are usually hidden but become, here, part of the story."
--Richard Wakefield, Seattle Times
"Wolff makes a compelling case that O'Hara [1905-1970] turned [his] obsession with being an outsider into a strength."
--John Freeman, New Observer
"With its 'human and occupational particulars,' Wolff's biography sets for itself an O'Hara-esque goal, and Wolff, director of the graduate program at UC Irvine, meets it with a brilliance worthy of its subject on the best day of his best year . . . O'Hara couldn't ask for a better champion . . . With the skills of a novelist, Wolff brings to life the world of relative privilege that shaped and misshaped O'Hara . . . Masterful and intelligent."
--Tom Nolan, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Wolff, who admits as much early on in The Art of Burning Bridges, performs the formidable task of endearing O'Hara to his readers and himself, armed with nothing but a host of superlative writing and interpretative skills. Wolff . . . displays a fluidity of tone, which can switch from an academician's to a clucking gossip's at a moment's notice . . . Because of Wolff's sincere desire to learn about his subject rather than condemn him (which, in O'Hara's case, would have been easy), the reader witnesses a rare and beautiful thing: The writer himself seems to evolve as his stance toward O'Hara softens from frustration to peaceful understanding."
--Gabriella Gershenson, San Francisco Chronicle
"Lively . . ."
--Elaine Szewczyk, Book
"It is not so much a conventional literary biography, though it makes gestures in that direction, as a conversation between one writer (the biographer) and another (his subject) and, into the bargain, a conversation with the reader about what it means to be a writer: how writing gets done, what ambitions writers harbor, what indignities and reversals they endure, and what makes them happy and infuriates them . . . Wolff is able to get a fix on O'Hara that O'Hara was never able to get on himself."
--Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World
"Fun to read . . . a wise-guy patter that echoes the Cagney snarl of the young O'Hara . . . Wolff succeeds in his aim 'to restore to John O'Hara's complicated history those human and occupational particulars that make him a writer worthy of attention.'"
--Shaun O'Connell, The Boston Globe
"Wolff approaches O'Hara as a reader first and biographer second, an admirably suspicious and unsentimental biographer at that . . . That [O'Hara] was loved, and that his writing deserves to be remembered in spite of his dismal profile, Wolff is certain. And by the book's end, he makes us certain, too."
--Kate Bolick, Vogue
"Geoffrey Wolff's is the fourth biography since O'Hara died 1970 at 65, and though there is not much new in it, it is the most readable yet. Nor has O'Hara's fiction previously been so well critiqued. Wolff is selective in vacuuming pertinent facts and opinions from those who went before, and generous in his attributions to those biographers even when he rejects their reporting and judgments. He sprinkles delightfully witty, sometimes wicked personal asides amid his own judgments and reporting."
--Theo Lippman, Jr., The Baltimore Sun
“Masterful . . . Wolff limns the marks of genius . . . A sophisticated and candid portrait.”
--Bryce Christensen, Booklist
“All the while, he’s getting at O’Hara’s genesis, his development, his being as a writer—and this is where Mr. Wolff takes the left turn that I found so, well, thrilling in reading this book. Melville, Keats, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, among others, elbow their way into this story, and so does Mr. Wolff himself . . . ‘Good writers deserve to be remembered,’ William Maxwell, O’Hara’s editor at The New Yorker, said to Mr. Wolff when he agreed to an interview for this biography. Mr. Wolff has written a remembrance that’s given me the greatest kind of anticipatory joy a reader can have: With this odd, provocative, immensely thoughtful and illuminating account of a nearly forgotten toiler on Grub Street, he has sent me back to O’Hara’s books with a renewed and refreshed interest.”
--André Bernard, The New York Observer
“A biography that is both satisfying and pleasingly unconventional . . . The Art of Burning Bridges is from beginning to end not a scholar’s book but one by a fellow writer: it’s conversational and opinionated . . . The picture he paints of O’Hara is a frequently endearing one, suggesting the doubts and anxieties behind the abrasiveness.”
--Charles McGrath, The New York Times Book Review
“In this keen, stylish, and often acerbic portrait Geoffrey Wolff accounts unsparingly yet sympathetically for O’Hara’s (mostly self-induced) disappointments . . . He is especially perceptive, and wickedly funny, regarding O’Hara’s obsessive fascination with the local and national WASP aristocracy . . . Wolff offers a remarkably sure and nuanced reading of O’Hara’s best work.”
--Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly
"Geoffrey Wolff has accomplished an extraordinary feat: He has written a touching biography of a pugnacious and difficult man . . . Thanks to Wolff's clear eye and lively prose, there's not a dull moment in the book. Sure, the subject makes engaging material from the start, but Wolff's prose is a great pleasure. His sentences sing with life and grace. He is one of the few writers who bears rereading just for the pleasure of the syntax of his sentences and the structure of his paragraphs. Wolff recounts O'Hara's life with vigor and specificity . . . Throughout it all, Wolff stays amused and intrigued by his subject, and he conveys this appealing sense of engagement to the reader with the full force of his research and wit."
--John Skoyles, Associated Press

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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