I like books that look like this: with dust wrappers bearing paintings (in this case by a talented illustrator named John O’Hara Cosgrave II, who is apparently no relation to the author), emblazoned by distinguished typefaces, and made with soft creamy papers, bitten by sharp black type. The Farmer’s Hotel strikes me as a really handsome book. I bought it for a dollar in a bookstore in Picton, Ontario.
It’s an odd book for John O’Hara (1905-1970) to have written. The Farmer’s Hotel—at 151 pages—is a novella, and while O’Hara was a master of the short story (Pipe Night (1945), Hellbox (1947), Sermons and Soda Water: A Trilogy of Three Novellas (1960, Assembly (1961), The Cape Cod Lighter (1962), The Hat on the Bed (1963), etc.), and a determined writer of big, spreading novels (Butterfield 8, A Rage to Live, Ten North Frederick, From the Terrace, Ourselves to Know, etc.), The Farmer’s Hotel sort of falls between stools in terms of O’Hara’s gifts and ambitions. I suspect he began the thing as a short story and simply couldn’t stop. Because there’s not enough in it to sustain a novel, the piece goes on until it gets tired (around page 140) and then reins itself back into the novella scale.
It’s an odd, rather glum title too. Someone writing for the John O’Hara Society online notes that O’Hara wanted to call the book “A Small Hotel” (after the Rodgers and Hart song, “There’s a Small Hotel,” from their 1936 musical On Your Toes), and asked composer Richard Rodgers for permission. O’Hara felt close to Rodgers because he had written the libretto (from his own novel) to the wildly successful Rodgers and Hart musical, Pal Joey in 1940. Much to O‘Hara’s annoyance, Rodgers refused. And so we have The Farmer’s Hotel.
Not much happens at the Farmer’s Hotel—which is actually one of the things I really like about it. The book is all dialogue—at which O’Hara was an absolute master. I think it was O’Hara admirer, John Updike, who suggested that O’Hara’s books were linguistic time-capsules, containing, in perfect, pristine form, the texture, the vey essence of American conversation during a certain time period—say 1940-1955. You want to know what middle-class life was like in those years, read O’Hara; it’s all there, conversation and attitudes, beliefs and ideals, hardened in amber.
What happens in The Farmer’s Hotel? Not much. A snowstorm in the little town of Rockbottom, Pennsylvania. The over-hospitable hotel-owner, Ira Studebaker, and his black, indispensable jack-of-all-trades, Charles Moultrie Mannering (who plays the trombone). A stranded car (with a businessman man and his mistress), and a stranded truck (with a brutish driver). Cheerful highway patrolmen stopping in for coffee. A pimp and a couple of his whores. The capable old female cook—Marie Fenstermacher (O`Hara is brilliant with names)—in the kitchen. Ship of Fools on dry land, in the snow. William Saroyan`s The Time of Your Life without the pub. Key Largo without Bogart and Bacall. Boccaccio`s Decameron almost.
And 151 pages of great, naturalistic dialogue:
“In the kitchen Marie Fenstermacher had the day’s morning paper spread out on the table in front of her. She was reading the country news. She was leaning slightly forward, with her arms folded across her bosom. Ira Studebaker came in and she slowly took off her glasses.
“They like your steak,” said Ira.
“Do they want more?” said Marie Fenstermacher.
“I don’t guess so, but they put it away, what they had,” said Ira.
“The only ones that wouldn’t like that steak don’t have any teeth, or aren’t meat eaters, one or the other.”
“It was nicely prepared, though,” said Ira.
I could read this stuff forever.