Friday, October 16, 2015

Book Review: The Big Laugh, a Hollywood novel by John O'Hara (1962)

The simple but elegant cover of The Big Laugh, by John O'Hara, 1962.

John O'Hara at his desk, circa 1960. Can you tell from his sweater vest that he never went to college?
After reading John O’Hara’s short story collection, John O’Hara’s Hollywood earlier this year, I decided to dive into his novel about Hollywood, 1962’s The Big Laugh. O’Hara was one of the most successful American writers of his generation, coming to prominence with his masterpiece of a first novel, Appointment in Samarra, published in 1934. O’Hara remained a best-selling author until his death in 1970. O’Hara is well-known for his superb short stories, and he holds what is probably an unbreakable record for the most short stories published in The New Yorker: 247. 

The Big Laugh is not one of John O’Hara’s major books. It’s well-written, but the narrative isn’t that compelling. Like his short stories about Hollywood from the 1960’s, it is set in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and is heavily dialogue-driven, with a somewhat meandering plot. In 1961 O’Hara published a book of five plays, unimaginatively titled Five Plays, which might help explain his love of dialogue-heavy stories from around this time. Much like Tom Wolfe, O’Hara was an avid chronicler of the social status signifiers of his era. O’Hara would be able to tell you exactly what it said about a man if he wore an Arrow shirt with a Phi Beta Kappa key. Because of his keen eye for telling details and social behavior, I think O’Hara would have excelled at the same sort of non-fiction that Tom Wolfe wrote: profiles of notable people, or examinations of trends in popular culture. But O’Hara remained firmly in the fiction camp, and as far as I know, never dove into long-form non-fiction. O’Hara did have a newspaper column at various times in the 1950’s and 1960’s, in which he held forth on the issues of the day. In a column from 1964, O’Hara expressed his opinion that Martin Luther King Jr. should not have received the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s not a column that anyone will be rushing to reprint anytime soon.

Because so many of O’Hara’s greatest works were written during the 1930’s, it feels a bit sad to read a book like The Big Laugh, which is set thirty years in the past. It’s as though O’Hara knows that the 1930’s were really his decade, and rather than analyze the current state of America, he continues to rush into the past to reexamine the time that he knew the best. It makes O’Hara seem out of touch. Which he probably was, judging from his opinion of Martin Luther King Jr. 

The Big Laugh tells the story of Hubert Ward, a young man drifting through life who happens to discover that he is good at acting, or at least good enough to become a movie star. The novel follows Hubert’s rise to the top of the film industry. Hubert is an unsympathetic character who is often described as a son of a bitch, which seems about right to me. I never really cared if Hubert was successful or not because he’s so unlikable. I don’t need my leading characters to be paragons of virtue, but they need to at least be interesting, and Hubert really isn’t that interesting. Like a glass of champagne, The Big Laugh goes down smoothly, but doesn’t leave much of an aftertaste. 

As I read John O’Hara’s Hollywood, I was intrigued by how O’Hara would use the same characters in different stories. In that book, the actress Doris Arlington appeared in three short stories, and I was glad to find her making an appearance in The Big Laugh as a supporting character. In The Big Laugh she’s given more of a distinct personality, as a savvy, career-driven actress who is a blunt dispenser of truths. She’s more interesting and more likable than Hubert, so maybe O’Hara should have made her the main character of The Big Laugh.

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