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Selected Short Stories of John O'Hara

Selected Short Stories of John O'Hara

by John O'Hara, Louis Begley (Introduction), Louis Begley (Introduction)

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“John O’Hara’s fiction,” wrote Lionel Trilling, “is preeminent for its social verisimilitude.” Made famous by his bestselling novels, including BUtterfield 8 and Appointment in Samarra, O’Hara (1905–1970) also wrote some of the finest short fiction of the twentieth century.

First published by the Modern


“John O’Hara’s fiction,” wrote Lionel Trilling, “is preeminent for its social verisimilitude.” Made famous by his bestselling novels, including BUtterfield 8 and Appointment in Samarra, O’Hara (1905–1970) also wrote some of the finest short fiction of the twentieth century.

First published by the Modern Library in 1956, Selected Short Stories of John O’Hara displays the author’s skills as a keen social observer, a refreshingly frank storyteller, and a writer with a brilliant ear for dialogue. “The stories in this volume,” writes Louis Begley in his new Introduction, “show the wide range of [O’Hara’s] interests and an ability to treat with a virtuoso’s ease characters and situations from any place on America’s geographic and social spectrum.”

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Modern Library Classics Series
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Decision

The home of Francis Townsend could have been taken for the birthplace of a nineteenth-century American poet, one of those little white houses by the side of the road that are regarded by the interested as national shrines. In front of the house there was a mounting block and a hitching post, iron, with the head of a horse holding an iron ring, instead of a bit, in its mouth. These, of course, had not been used in the last thirty years, but use did not govern the removal of many objects about the Townsend place. Things were added, after due consideration, but very little was ever taken away.

The Townsend place was on the outskirts of the seacoast village, out of the zone where the sidewalks were paved. In the fall of the year and in the spring, the sidewalk was liable to be rather muddy, and Francis Townsend several times had considered bricking the path-not that he minded the mud, but out of consideration for the female pedestrians. This project he had dismissed after studying the situation every afternoon for a week. He sat by the window in the front room and came to the conclusion that (a) there were not really many pedestrians during the muddy seasons, since there were few summer people around in spring or fall, and (b) the few natives who did use the sidewalk in front of his place were people who had sense enough to be properly shod in muddy weather. Another and very satisfying discovery that Francis Townsend made was that few people-men, women, or children-came near his house at all. For a long, long time he had entertained the belief that the street outside was a busy thoroughfare, more or less choked with foot and vehicular traffic. "I am really quite alone out here," he remarked to himself. This allowed for the fact that he had made his study of the muddy-sidewalk problem in the afternoon, when traffic was presumably lighter than in the morning, when, for instance, housewives would be doing their shopping. The housewives and others could not have made that much difference; even if the morning traffic were double that of the afternoon, it still was not considerable. It was, of course, impossible for Francis Townsend to make his study in the morning, except Sunday morning, for Francis Townsend's mornings were, in a manner of speaking, spoken for.

Every morning, Francis Townsend would rise at six-thirty, shave and have his bath, and himself prepare first breakfast, which consisted of two cups of coffee and a doughnut. In the winter he would have this meal in the kitchen, cheerful with its many windows and warm because of the huge range. In the summer he would take the coffee and doughnut to the front room, where it was dark and cool all day. He would run water into the dirty cup and saucer and put them in the sink for the further attention of Mrs. Dayton, his housekeeper, who usually made her appearance at eight-thirty. By the time she arrived, Francis Townsend would have changed from his sneakers and khaki pants and cardigan to a more suitable costume-his black suit, high black kid shoes, starched collar, and black four-in-hand tie. He would smoke a cigarette while he listened to Mrs. Dayton stirring about in the kitchen, and pretty soon would come the sound of the knocker and he would go to the front door. That would be Jerry Bradford, the letter carrier.

"Good morning, Jerry."

"Good morning, Francis. Three letters an-n-nd the New York paper."

"Three letters and the paper, thank you."

"Fresh this morning. Wind's from the east. Might have a little rain later in the day."

"Oh, you think so?"

"Well, I might be wrong. See you tomorrow, in all likelihood." Jerry would go away and Francis would stand at the open doorway until Jerry had passed the Townsend property line. Then sometimes Francis would look at the brass nameplate, with its smooth patina and barely distinguishable name: "F. T. Townsend, M.D." The plate was small, hardly any larger than the plate for a man's calling card, not a proper physician's shingle at all, but there it was and had been from the day of his return from medical school.

He would go back to his chair in the front room and wait for Mrs. Dayton to announce breakfast, which she did in her own way. She would say, "Morning," as greeting, and nod slowly, indicating that breakfast was on the table. Francis then would take his paper and letters to the dining room and partake of second breakfast-oatmeal, ham and eggs, toast that was toasted over a flame, and a pot of coffee. Mrs. Dayton appeared only once during breakfast, when she brought in the eggs and took away the cereal dishes.

Francis Townsend's mail rarely was worth the pleasure of anticipation. That did not keep him from anticipating Jerry Bradford's knock on the door or from continuing to hope for some surprise when he slit the envelopes with his butter knife. The reading of his mail did, in fact, give him pleasure, even though it might be no more than an alumni-association plea, a list of candidates for membership in his New York club, or an advertisement from a drug or instrument company. Francis Townsend would read them all, all the way through, propping them against the tall silver salt-cellar, and then he would take them with him to the front room, so that Mrs. Dayton could not see them, and there he would toss them in the fire or, in warm weather, put a match to them.

Then, every day but Sunday, Francis Townsend would take his walk. For the first thirty of the last forty years, Francis Townsend had had a companion on his walk. The companion always had been a collie; not always the same collie, but always a collie. But about ten years ago, when the last Dollie (all of Francis Townsend's dogs had been called Dollie) died, Francis Townsend read somewhere or heard somewhere that it took too much out of you to have dogs; you no sooner grew to love them, and they you, than they died and you had to start all over again with a new one. This bit of dog lore came at a time when Francis Townsend had just lost a Dollie and was suffering a slight nosebleed. It was not a proper hemorrhage, but it was not exactly reassuring as to Francis Townsend's life expectancy, and he did not want to take on the responsibility of another Dollie if Dollie were to be left without anyone to take care of her, any more than he wanted to go through the pain of losing another dog. Therefore, for the last ten years or so, Francis Townsend had taken his walk alone.

Although he would not have known it, Francis Townsend's daily-except Sunday-walk was as much a part of the life of the village as it was of his own life. The older merchants and their older children and older employees took for granted that around a certain hour every morning Francis Townsend would be along. Harris, the clothing-store man; McFetridge, the hardware-store man; Blanchard, the jeweler; Bradford, brother of Jerry Bradford, who had the Ford-Lincoln-Mercury agency-among others-took for granted that Francis Townsend would be along around a certain hour every morning. He had to pass their places on his way to the bank, and when they saw him, they would say, "Hello, Francis," and would usually say something about the weather, and Francis would nod and smile, and, without coming to a full stop, he would indicate that the comment or the prediction was acceptable to him.

His first full stop always was the bank. There he would go to Eben Townsend's desk and Eben would push toward him a filled-in check. "Morning, Francis," "Good morning, Eben," they would say, and Francis would put "F. T. Townsend, M.D.," on the check, and his cousin would give Francis three five-dollar bills. Francis would thank him and resume his walk.

At his next stop, Francis would sometimes have to wait longer than at the bank. Eventually, though, the barkeep would come to wait on Francis. "Hyuh, Francis," he would say, and place a quart of rye whiskey and a pitcher of water on the bar.

"Hyuh, Jimmy," Francis would say, and pour himself a rye-and-water. "Well, well, well."

"Ixcuse me, Francis, I got a salesman here," Jimmy might say. "Be with you in two shakes of a ram's tail."

"That's all right, Jimmy. Take your time. I'll be here for a while."

This conversational opening, or something very like it, had been fairly constant for forty years, inasmuch as the barkeep's name always had been Jimmy, since a father and a son had owned the business, or at least tended bar, during the forty mature years of Francis Townsend's life. Jimmy the father had discovered long, long ago that, as he put it, Francis was good for the entire bloody morning and didn't take offense if you left him a minute to transact your business. Francis was indeed good for the entire morning. If it happened to be one of Jimmy's busy days, he would remember to put four toofers-two-for-a-quarter cigars-on the bar in front of Francis before he left him, and Francis would smoke them slowly, holding them in his tiny, even teeth, looking up at the ceiling with one of them in his mouth, as though William Howard Taft or Harry Truman had just asked his advice on whom to appoint to the Court of St. James's. Francis never bothered anybody, not even during the years of two World Wars. He never tried to buy drinks for the Coast Guard or the Army Air Forces, and he was not a man whose appearance welcomed invitations on the part of strangers. Among the villagers-the few who would drink in the morning out of habit or temporary necessity-none would bother Francis or expect to be bothered by him. Francis had his place at the bar, at the far corner, and it was his so long as he was present. First-generation Jimmy and second-generation Jimmy had seen to that.

Each day, Monday through Saturday, January through December, Francis Townsend would sip his drinks and smoke his cigars until the noon Angelus from St. Joseph's Church. If he happened to be the only customer in the bar, Francis would say to Jimmy, "Ahem. The angel of the Lord declared, if I may say so."

"Correct, Francis."

Francis would take two of the three five-dollar bills from a lower vest pocket, and Jimmy would size up the rye bottle and pick up the money and return the estimated and invariably honest change. The tradition then was for Jimmy to say, "Now the house breaks down and turns Cath'lic."

"A rye, then," would be Francis Townsend's answer, in Francis Townsend's weak attempt at brogue. Whereupon Jimmy would hand Francis Townsend a wrapped bottle of rye and Francis would go home and eat the nice lunch Mrs. Dayton had prepared and take a good nap till time for supper, and after supper, when Mrs. Dayton had gone home, he would sit and read some of the fine books, like Dombey and Son, the Waverley Novels, Bacon's Essays-the fine books in the front room-till it was time to bank the kitchen fire for the next morning and finish off the last of the wrapped bottle of rye.

That was about the way it had been with Francis Townsend from the time he finished medical school. That year, soon after his graduation, his uncle, who had raised him, said to him one day, "What are your plans, Francis?"

"First, I thought I'd interne at a hospital in Pittsburgh. A great many mines and factories out there and a man can learn a lot. Then, of course, I'll come back here and hang out my shingle. And I have an understanding with a girl in Philadelphia, Uncle. We're not engaged, but-we have an understanding."

His uncle got up and filled his pipe from the humidor on the mantelpiece in the front room. "No, boy," he said. "I'm sorry to say you can't have any of those things. You can never practice medicine, and you can't marry."

"Why, I can do both. I'm accepted at the hospital out in Pittsburgh, and the girl said she'd wait."

"Not when I tell you what I have to tell you. Do you know that both your father and your mother died in an institution? No, of course you don't know. There aren't many people in this village know. Most of the people my age think your father and mother died of consumption, but it wasn't consumption, France. It was mental."

"I see," said Francis. He stood up and filled his own pipe, with his class numerals in silver on the bowl. "Well, then, of course you're right." He took his time lighting up. "I guess there's no way out of that, is there, Uncle?"

"I don't know. I don't know enough about such things, putting to one side that I do know you shouldn't marry or you shouldn't doctor people."

"Oh, I agree with you, Uncle. I agree with you." Francis sat down again, trying to assume the manner of one Deke talking to another Deke in the fraternity house. "I wonder what I ought to do? I don't think I ought to just sit here and wait till I begin to get loony myself. There ought to be some kind of work where I couldn't do anybody any harm."

"You won't have to worry about money. I've fixed that at the bank. Give yourself plenty of time to pick and choose. You'll decide on something."

"Oh, very likely I will," Francis said. "I won't just stay on here in the village." But that, it turned out, was what he did decide to do.

Meet the Author

Louis Begley is the author of a number of novels, including Schmidt Delivered, About Schmidt, and Wartime Lies. He lives in New York City.

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