We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
In The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O’Hara, author Geoffrey Wolff proves the old adage that, when writing about a famous American novelist who is the son of a doctor, and whose stories often feature characters who are sons of doctors, it helps to be the son of a son of a doctor. “O’Hara was the son of a doctor,” writes Wolff in the preface. “So was my father.” Throughout the book, Wolff maintains a steady bedside manner when handling the sometimes nauseating behavior of his subject. He acknowledges the canker”I can hardly deny or ignore that O’Hara punched a couple of women, or that he battled an actual midget”before moving on to the body of O’Hara’s work. Wolff successfully illuminates the “punch and counterpunch of provocations and responses,” between O’Hara and his father, a successful physician whose high expectations for his eldest son grew into bitter disappointment as O’Hara rejected a life in medicine. By artfully shifting between O’Hara’s life and the lives of his characters, Wolff demonstrates how the author’s troubled relationship with his father informed some of his best literary work, including the psychological unraveling of Julian English (another son of a doctor) in Appointment in Samarra. Wolff begins his biography by visiting the place of O’Hara’s birth, Pottsville, Pa., and ends it by revisiting the epitaph on the author’s tombstone. In between, he serves up a trenchant story that will fascinate literary laypersons and sons of doctors alike. Wolff reads at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 19, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919. (Felix Gillette)