Friday, March 14, 2014

Forgotten Books: Pal Joey - John O'Hara

(This post originally appeared in slightly different form on October 18, 2007.)

PAL JOEY is an early novel of John O'Hara's from 1940 that’s told in the form of letters from Joey, a struggling nightclub singer in the Midwest, to his friend Ted, a much more successful singer and bandleader. I was aware of PAL JOEY only as a movie musical I’ve never seen starring Frank Sinatra and didn’t know the film was based on an O’Hara novel until recently. It must have been quite a chore for the screenwriter to turn this book into a coherent screenplay, since there’s not much actual story to work with. Joey sings in various second-rate nightclubs, romances an assortment of beautiful young women (or “mice”, as he calls them), and is jealous of his friend Ted’s success. That’s about it for the plot.

But O’Hara’s work isn’t really strong on plot to start with. He concentrates on characterization and dialogue instead. PAL JOEY manages to be both funny and very dark at the same time. Joey is uneducated, as is evident from the misspellings, grammatical errors, and tortured sentence structures in the letters he writes, but he has more than enough lust, greed, and ambition to make up for it. His jealousy of his friend’s success comes through plainly, as does his unwillingness to take any of the blame for his failures, even though most of them result from losing his temper or trying to take advantage of someone. He’s about the most venal character you’re ever going to come across, which is probably just what O’Hara intended.

PAL JOEY is also short and moves right along, always a plus in my book. I enjoyed it, and it’s got me really curious about the film version. I’m going to have to hunt up a copy of the DVD and give it a try.

UPDATE: So, have I watched the movie version of PAL JOEY, in the almost six-and-a-half years since this post first appeared? Well, no, not yet. But I'll get around to it one of these days!


Walker Martin said...

John O'Hara is one of my favorite authors especially for his shorter work. I much prefer his novellas over the longer novels. APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA is one of the best American novels and I like all the stories in his Gibbsville series.

Anonymous said...

I thought of PAL JOEY as a collection of stories rather than a novel. I also read - within a few days of this - the "play" version with songs by Rodgers & Hart.

Jeff M.

George said...

I'm a big John O'Hara fan. You're right about O'Hara concentrating on characterization instead of plot. That's a common feature in many of his works.

Michael Pacheco said...

I never read O'Hara but I'm a big Sinatra fan. He wanted to make the movie badly and begged Rita Hayworth to star in it with Kim Novak.
I'm sure the story was changed a lot. I don't recall Joey's friend being in it and the character changes from being a heel to hero by the end of the story.
I have a copy of the dvd and like it for the songs mostly. Rita Hayworth pantomimes "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" and Kim Novak does "My Funny Valentine" and Sinatra does an awesome rendition of "The Lady is a Tramp".