Saturday, 30 March 2013

Pal Joey - John O'Hara

Probably O'Hara's most famous work today, thanks to the musical and musical movie, Pal Joey is in fact an epistolary novella, only 70 pages long in this omnibus edition from the 1980s.  Having not read O'Hara before, I did not know what to expect.  I certainly didn't expect it to consist entirely of semi-literate letters.  I envisaged Updike; what I got reminded me strongly of Nathanael West, which suited me just fine.

We never learn Joey's last name, nor that of his sole correspondent and sometime pal Ted, who is doing much better than Joey is the swing era of 1938-41, which is when the book was written.  As a novella it relies more on nuance than plot and as such succeeds remarkably well.  I loved the interview with 'girl reporter' Melba, the sad little affair with wealthy widow Mavis, and above all the magnificent coda of the 14th letter, 'Reminiss', where Joey reflects sourly on what might (should) have been.  The line - "I even wear a little rug up front but so does the Grooner and Freddie Astare" - encapsulates it all.  Wonderful.

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