My ambition is really coming to bite me this week. I am currently working my way through a collection of John O’Hara’s short stories. Even with ample effort and excellent intentions, I did not end up finishing the collection entitled “The New York Stories” (2013).
This selection includes most of O’Hara’s stories that were set in New York, many of which were published in issues of The New Yorker. O’Hara is often overlooked in the discussion of American short story writers. Nonetheless, you cannot get through even one of his stories without seeing that he is a master of the craft. Short stories have to be economical; every word has a purpose because of the little space the author has to work with.
A fan of Ernest Hemingway, O’Hara adopts a similar style to Hemingway’s. He withholds central information about characters, pushing the reader to infer and dig for their own benefit. O’Hara’s stories are, therefore, powerful through their restraint and his control of the narrative.
Varying in length and topic, O’Hara inserts his readers into different New York apartments and lives, peeking in and giving you a snapshot. You see a moment of a life as it moves through some sort of conflict. You see just a moment’s glimpse of an older woman and her maid, a promiscuous woman past her prime, a Hollywood actor pursuing a Broadway star and a car washer hiding a few dollars from his wife to take his son to see the Yankees. These are just four of his stories, each touching on the lives that he witnesses around him in New York.
In Steven Goldleaf’s introduction to “The New York Stories,” he gives a delightful peek into O’Hara’s ability to encapsulate the unique stories around him in New York. He explains how O’Hara realized that each person defies stereotypes and has their own stories. This epiphany shaped O’Hara into “a skilled listener, and a sensitive renderer of New Yorkers’ voices — of what they had to say, what they were omitting and how they expressed themselves.”
Though I might not have read every story in the collection in a week’s time, I did have the opportunity to meet O’Hara, discover his voice and savor his short stories. Whether the book has been finished or not is not as important as the enjoyment gained and brilliance witnessed along the way.
This week I also had the satisfying realization that short stories are a clever way to fit reading into a busy schedule. Every night before bed, I had the opportunity to read a story or two before turning off the lights and giving into snoozing. If you are one of the many overscheduled Tufts students, perhaps short stories are also a way for you to receive the therapeutic value of reading for pleasure. It is a perfect way to interact with words, plots and characters, taking yourself out of the environment and stress around you while giving a little gift to your brain.