NOVEMBER 2, 2016
2016 MARKS the 50th anniversary of Edwin O’Connor’s final novel, a book long out of print — like all but one of his works — which recently reentered circulation via a nonprofit Jesuit press. O’Connor’s 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction award fell immediately between Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and William Faulkner’s The Reivers. “I would like to do for the Irish in America what Faulkner did for the South,” O’Connor once said — that is, parody them, excoriate them, celebrate them, romanticize them, and humanize them — and he succeeded. So why has his name lapsed into obscurity a mere half-century after his final publication?
Viewed through a contemporary lens, O’Connor’s multigenerational sagas of rapidly transforming New England are indeed unmarketable. His aging patriarchs are inevitably disappointed by their grown children, his stoic wives stand by their feckless men, and his self-absorbed narrators are given to melancholy reflections that take up page after page. Yet if O’Connor’s brand of unabashed sentimentality is somewhat old fashioned, his verbose characters are memorable and lifelike, and his keen eye and ear were equally adept at observing intergenerational conflict and municipal administration.
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1918 and raised in nearby Woonsocket, Rhode Island, O’Connor was educated at Notre Dame. After serving in the Coast Guard during World War II, he settled in Boston, where he picked up print and radio work; the nameless city in his novels usually resembles a composite of Providence and Boston. His five novels are all victims of unfortunate titles: 1951’s The Oracle is monolithic, 1956’s The Last Hurrah histrionic, 1961’s The Edge of Sadness plain sad, 1964’s I Was Dancing saccharine, and 1966’s All in the Family easily confused for a TV show. He was a bachelor until age 45, when he married a divorcée with a young son; he died four years later, in 1968, of a brain hemorrhage.
O’Connor’s dearth of recognition may have something to do with the perception that he is, too narrowly, a Catholic novelist; just as the dark humor of Saul Bellow identifies him, to some extent, as a distinctly Jewish-American novelist, O’Connor’s maudlin romanticism is decidedly Catholic in flavor. His closest analogue may be William Kennedy, another Pulitzer-winning postwar novelist whose books follow bloodlines and municipal politics in declining northeastern industrial cities. O’Connor and Kennedy both debuted with short comic novels, narrated in the third person, based on their experiences in commercial media. Kennedy’s The Ink Truck (1969) is a madcap chronicle of an upstate New York newspaper strike, whereas O’Connor’s The Oracle centers on a conservative radio commentator. Serviceable in its comedy and observation, The Oracle is O’Connor’s least significant book, suffering from particularly overwritten dialogue; still, it has aged surprisingly well. The novelistic takedown of media institutions remains in vogue, and The Oracle’s conservative blowhard is startlingly current.
The Last Hurrah arrived five years later; it made O’Connor a celebrated novelist and a rich man. A chronicle of the final mayoral campaign of Frank Skeffington, the last of the great New England municipal bosses, it’s really a eulogy for the Great Depression–era Irish. Skeffington, who bears more than a passing resemblance to longtime Boston mayor James Michael Curley, has maintained control of the city’s machine for decades through charisma and manipulation of ward governance. After announcing his reelection bid, he makes unexpected overtures to his nephew Adam Caulfield, a newspaper cartoonist, to accompany him on the trail. Sharing the backseat of Skeffington’s limousine, Adam is charmed by his uncle’s poetic reminiscences and deep comprehension of the city and its history.
The novel’s greatest moment is a vividly imagined wake, where Adam is disturbed to find a jolly crowd dominated by Frank’s city hall henchmen. Skeffington understands Adam’s consternation, but he explains that these cheerful wakes aren’t a sacrilege. They are a crucial component of the Irish-American experience:
When somebody died, the others went to pay their respects and also to see and talk to each other. It was all part of the pattern. They were sorry for the family of the deceased, to be sure, but while they were being sorry they took advantage of the opportunity to have a drink and a chat with the others who were being sorry, too. It was a change, an outlet for people who led back-breaking, dreary, and monotonous lives.
The Last Hurrah is a character study of a seemingly irreconcilable but entirely believable figure: a corrupt swindler, incorrigible liar, empathetic friend, mercurial genius, and veritable man of the people. Skeffington’s success as an administrator is disputed, but the size of his character endears him even to his enemies.
Skeffington loses by a landslide. Adam, who has gained a new appreciation for his uncle, his city, and his heritage, is heartbroken. And it turns out that Skeffington has benefitted from the relationship as much as his nephew; his wife is long dead and his son a dancing simpleton. After conceding the campaign, Frank returns to his empty home and suffers a heart attack, dying the pitiful death of a once-indomitable titan who has outlasted his era.
If The Last Hurrah’s characters are types, they’re richly and sympathetically embellished, not to mention funny. Explaining the novel’s origins, O’Connor commented on the state of Irish-American writing in the first half of the 20th century: “I began to say to myself, ‘Where the hell is the humor?’ It was sullen stuff, depressed. Now the Irish writers — O’Casey, Joyce — they have humor, but the Irish-Americans never seemed to capture it … I thought I’d try.”
The Last Hurrah is O’Connor’s first full-length examination of the generation gap between children of the Great Depression and their progeny, which is the theme of all his subsequent novels. The Edge of Sadness and All in the Family are linear reflections of nearly identical lengths, best sellers narrated in the first-person peripheral, like The Great Gatsby and All the King’s Men — two great American novels that clearly influenced O’Connor. In the tradition of Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway and Robert Penn Warren’s Jack Burden, O’Connor’s narrators are defined by a competent complacency. Humble observers of prominent families, they are fair, smart, and invested just enough to make believable bystanders.
The Edge of Sadness and All in the Family are redemption narratives featuring incorrigible old widowers and tragically unfulfilled sons. Both books begin and end with revealing family reunions, and both are suffused with guilt, analyzing ambition and its unfortunate effect across relations, churches, and governments. Both have heartrending climaxes and harrowing denouements, which find villainous old men reduced by the calamity they’ve wrought. And both are gripping and deeply affecting, in spite of their long-winded loquaciousness.
The Edge of Sadness is narrated by Father Hugh Kennedy, the pastor of a decrepit parish in a rough section of the city, and tracks his evolving relationship with the Carmody clan after a stint in alcohol rehabilitation. Among the Carmodys are 81-year-old Charlie, a pitiless real estate baron and despised contemporary of Hugh’s late father, and John, Hugh’s friend and fellow priest.
When Charlie suffers a coronary thrombosis on Christmas night, he surprises his assembled family by asking not for any of his children, but for Hugh. Believing himself to be at death’s door, he is certain that, of all the people he has known in his life, Hugh’s father must have had a soft spot for him. Recalling his father’s utter distaste for Charlie, Hugh lies to the apparently dying old man, fabricating fond recollections. Lifted by Hugh’s soothing lies, Charlie survives the night and recovers under the ceaseless attention of his children.
Crisis seemingly averted, Hugh meets John, who confesses hatred of his wealthy parish; no matter how hard he tries at the pulpit, he fails to reach his congregation, which sees him more as a recreation leader than a minister. Yet his own failure, he insists, is far less grievous than Hugh’s, who considers himself fundamentally removed from his own poor immigrant parishioners and doesn’t even try to reach them. Days later John dies of a hemorrhage, and Hugh decries the injustice: while Charlie falsely predicted his death and demanded repentance from his devoted children, John suffered spiritual and physical crisis but asked nothing of his loved ones.
The denouement is classic O’Connor. Encountering Hugh months later, Charlie, fully recovered, is unmoved by John’s death and claims no recollection of his Christmas confession. In O’Connor’s novels people are ultimately themselves, and indeed must live with themselves long after life-altering events. The resolution proves the necessity of the first-person peripheral; although the story happens to the Carmody family, The Edge of Sadness is ultimately about the redemption of its narrator:
[W]hile only a fool can look around him and smile serenely in unwatered optimism, nevertheless the wonder of it all is to me the frequency with which kindness, the essential goodness of man does break through, and as one who has received his full measure of that goodness, I can say that for me, at least, it is in the long succession of these small, redemptive instants, just as much as in the magnificence of heroes, that the meaning and the glory of man is revealed.
The Edge of Sadness is O’Connor’s most difficult work — a long arc of soul-searching and telephone conversations from rectories and hospital beds, as well as a well-informed workplace novel in which prelates are constantly worried about diocesan politics. Even within the Carmody clan, the chasms between generations are enormous; Charlie’s grandson, a congressional candidate, sees his grandfather as a puerile old man and can’t comprehend the function of the church in his secular world. While a tale about the attainment of grace, it also functions as a criticism of the pre–Vatican II priesthood. Both John and Hugh face immense barriers to performing their clerical duties in ethnically segregated parishes. O’Connor wrote and spoke at length during these years about the need for modernization; in his 1963 speech “A Meeting on Sunday,” he despaired over the state of the homily. “It is my impression that the impact of the average Sunday sermon is so slight that it can hardly be called an impact at all,” he said. “How rarely does it happen that any one of us remembers for more than five minutes what Father So-and-So said from the pulpit?” Some of the concerns he raised may have been allayed by the changes enacted by the Second Vatican Council, but he also cited transient parish populations, the diminished prominence of clerics, and the lack of preparation among the priests themselves. Through their own faults and those of others, Fathers John Carmody and Hugh Kennedy occupy opposite ends on the spectrum of a deeply flawed priesthood.
All in the Family is a structural mirror to The Edge of Sadness and a spiritual successor to The Last Hurrah, graduating from municipal to state politics, and narrated by Jack Kinsella, a former aide in the Skeffington administration. Disillusioned by politics, he’s become a successful novelist, while his cousins Charles and Phil have ascended rapidly on the political ladder. Hailed as O’Connor’s “Kennedy novel,” All in the Family is instead a profile of the college-educated New England Irish of the 1960s. The photogenic Kinsellas take city hall and move on to the state house; along the way, they are forced to navigate between activists and academics, who have supplanted the old ward bosses and civic societies.
The book opens, however, with a flashback that may comprise the finest hundred pages of O’Connor’s career. Jack recounts an idyllic childhood shattered during a weekend at a lake cabin, in which his mother apparently kills herself and his younger brother on a canoe trip. Jack and his mourning father set sail for Ireland, where they spend a summer with his uncle Jimmy Kinsella, his wife Mary, and their sons James, Phil, and Charles. From there, the plot shoots forward to a richly imagined party celebrating Charles’s gubernatorial election, with Phil as his campaign manager; James has become an ecumenical priest, leaving Charles and Phil to fulfill Uncle Jimmy’s dream of a Kinsella monarchy. During a family toast, discord emerges between the newly elected Charles and the preternaturally decent Phil — John Carmody sans Roman collar.
After a brief interlude in Europe, Jack returns to intervene in Charles and Phil’s escalating feud. Fed up with Charles’s ambition and sensing corruption, Phil has quit the administration, threatening to bring his brother down unless he returns to the ideals of their campaign. As the tension heightens, O’Connor continues to paint unforgettable scenes, but it’s the dazzling climax that makes All in the Family his most accomplished tale. Tapping into a latent ruthlessness, Charles enlists a stoolie doctor to commit Phil to a mental institution, destroying his credibility and pushing him out of the way. It’s the decisive blow for a crumbling family, as Uncle Jimmy recognizes:
Now I can say only one thing about my family: to hell with it! Because I haven’t got it any more. I’ve got one boy that’s made me happy, that’s doing a great job the way a boy of mine should, but he’s the only one. I’ve got another boy that’s turned out to be a fancy Dan priest that can chow down with a crowd of mealy-mouth half-assed ministers every night in the week, but when I need him for something important, when I call him up to ask him to come here tonight to help out the family, then he’s too busy for that, he can’t get away, he’s off to Africa in the morning because they’re blowing the lid off some new coon saint! Well, to hell with him, too… But at least… at least he’s never tried to smash it to bits. The way you did. You’re the one that knifed me right in the ticker, boy.
The ending is, surprisingly, the sunniest one O’Connor ever conceived: Jack and his wife return to Ireland and are overjoyed to learn of her pregnancy. Like O’Connor, who spent his last four years happily married with a stepson, Jack Kinsella finally has a family of his own.
Beyond the familiar exploration of political and filial responsibility and the corrupting power of ambition, All in the Family executes a perceptive commentary on mental health, beginning with Jack’s mother’s suicide and culminating in Phil’s institutionalization. If not a book about the Kennedy family, it portrays the pressures and expectations they faced, as well as the unprecedented privileges enjoyed by Kennedy-era Irish-Americans. Over his three pilgrimages to the Emerald Isle, Jack Kinsella is afforded what his father and grandfather weren’t: an appreciation of his heritage and tribal identity. In his final novel, O’Connor managed a proud reckoning with the long-disparaged motherland.
Published in 1964, two years before All in the Family, I Was Dancing unfolds in one day and almost entirely within a bedroom. It introduced Waltzing Daniel Considine, a retired vaudevillian sculpted from the same marble as Charlie Carmody and Jimmy Kinsella. It’s another study of intergenerational debts and discontent, complicated by the fact that Daniel was an absentee father. The most simply conveyed and lightest in tone of O’Connor’s novels, I Was Dancing is narrated in a measured third person, yet its first half is permeated with dread, as Daniel’s son Tom prepares to relocate his father to a home for the elderly. All of O’Connor’s old men are ghoulish, but Waltzing Daniel Considine is wretched — after a lifetime of neglect, he returns to his son’s life to berate him for their tattered relationship. I Was Dancing (Oh, that title! Could no one have suggested Waltzing Dan?) has the starkest conclusion of O’Connor’s oeuvre, and its chief flaws also weaken his other novels.
While densely populated, none of O’Connor’s books contains a fully formed female character. His women are haphazard sketches of domestics; even the most educated, well-meaning, and long-suffering among them are regarded as onuses by men — all Catholics — who can’t get rid of them. Having eaten away at their wives with public ambition and personal indifference, Frank Skeffington, Charlie Carmody, Jimmy Kinsella, and Daniel Considine outlive them by decades.
From a narrative standpoint, O’Connor was still searching for the perfect method of exposition when his career was cut short. The Oracle and The Last Hurrah are over-reliant on expository dialogue, a problem obviated at least in part by his switch to the first-person peripheral in The Edge of Sadness and All in the Family. The latter two, however, become knotty and overwrought as their narrators take pains to establish their significance, often through long flashbacks; the books also suffer from sagging, meandering second acts. With its conciseness and tight cast of characters, I Was Dancing is the only O’Connor novel that couldn’t be accused of bagginess.
In 1970, the Atlantic Monthly Press published The Best and the Last of Edwin O’Connor, a collection of essays, selections, and two unfinished novel fragments, one about an 80-year-old dying Cardinal and the other about a 10-year-old boy. Both are beautifully rendered retreads. “Cardinal,” which opens with an old man reading the obituary pages, tackles aging and Vatican II modernization. The outline of “Boy,” too, is readily recognizable: the narrator lives with his mother while his father, a traveling vaudevillian, tours the country. He meets a deposed alcoholic bishop and, like young Jack Kinsella, portrays a troubled marriage and tranquil youth from the perspective of a child. Both the Cardinal and the boy are named Joe.
I don’t by any means wish to suggest that O’Connor was out of ideas — “Cardinal” and “Boy” are works in progress, and the writing is consistently fantastic. “Boy” also contains O’Connor’s sole reference to pedophilia in the priesthood. But one of the joys of reading O’Connor is charting the evolution and refinement of his themes and characters, particularly as traditional Catholicism was refurbished and Irish-American culture went mainstream. Neither “Cardinal” nor “Boy” accomplishes the paramount feats of his novels, and their publication was something of a disservice to a writer who died at the height of his powers.
“The last view is not always an indulgent one,” affirms Father Hugh Kennedy, the alcoholic priest seeking redemption, early in The Edge of Sadness. There is some poetry in the fact that O’Connor — a titan of the Greatest Generation — faded away like the lonely Irish-American patriarchs at the centers of his charming, devastating novels. But enough time has passed for us to hold a cheerful wake.