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Ten North Frederick (1955)

Ten North Frederick (1955)
3.75 of 5 Votes: 2
0394448146 (ISBN13: 9780394448145)
random house
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Ten North Frederick (1955)
Ten North Frederick (1955)

About book: I first read this many decades ago when O’Hara was better known and, along with his compatriots such as Faulkner and Hemingway, etc. more popular than now. Only Fitzgerald and Steinbeck seem to have remained so with each having books on examination syllabuses. But, of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re popular!However, since the publisher has seen fit to re-issue this in Penguin Classics, perhaps O’Hara will begin to enjoy something of a return to popularity. The novel was certainly popular when first published in the middle fifties and won a prestigious literary award. It tells the story of Joseph B. Chapin a big fish in a small pond, living all of his life in the mythical Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, described as being ‘too large to be a town but too small to be a city’. His story opens shortly after his life ends when the great and the good of Gibbsville are gathered to pay their respects to one of their own at his funeral and O’Hara omits no detail in telling us who these people are, their relationship to the deceased and their relative importance to the life of their town. In this respect the book is something of a tour-de-force of sustained writing employing, as it does, flashbacks and flash-forwards to interweave the complex web of inter-relationships among this seeming multitude of characters many of whom play no further part if the Joe’s story. And I have to say that at times learning the intimate details of these people’s lives became somewhat tiresome. Having said that, persistence does pay off as the various threads eventually connect to form a picture of a man whose reach very definitely exceeds his grasp and for which he eventually pays a heavy price. I was prompted to revisit the novel in the wake of having completed another long overlooked apparent would-be ‘classic’, ‘Stoner’ dubbed by the Guardian as the ‘must read book of 2013’ and written by a writer much less well known than O’Hara. In certain respects the two books bear comparison since, although their protagonists are not exact contempories, they describe the lives of two American men from birth to death, during the early to middle years of the Twentieth Century. As such I can recommend them as appropriate companion pieces. They are both extremely well-written in their own ways but, although I am glad I’ve read them, I don’t think I shall return to either of them.

The portrait of a respected man, Joe Chapin, whose private life was quite different from its public face. We start with his grand funeral in 1945, full of dignitaries and praise. Everyone regards him as one of the blessed of the world. But the fuller story of his life reveals a disappointed man, a sad man who missed everything of genuine importance to him. In the process we also get an interesting portrait of a community and a time, a mid-size Pennsylvania town in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. Given the widespread wasteland of small-town North America now, emptied out by the disappearance of the railroads, the building of the major highways, the sprawl of the suburbs, the collapse of small manufacturing and local business, the destruction of family farms and their replacement by giant factory farms, it's easy to forget how complex and varied was the economic, political, social, and cultural life of smaller centres only a fairly short time ago. Now the wealthy social elite (of which the subject of this novel is an example) has all left, the manufacturing base is gone, local business has been replaced by box stores and chain stores on their fringes, town centres have been emptied, and local resources have shrunk. Joe Chapin didn't want to be a small fish in the big pond of New York or Philadelphia; now the opportunity to be a big fish, a respected man, whether ultimately a disappointed one or not, in his Pennsylvania town wouldn't even be available to him.
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While this is clearly fiction, I enjoyed reading it more as history of the 1950's. O'Hara is not the great writer he thought he was, but he does tell a story, and boy, in an era of staid propriety, a sure lot of "bad" stuff sure happens in this rather long tale.In a real sense, "Ten North Frederick" is an updated version of Sinclair Lewis' "Babbitt," a book which is even mentioned once in O'Hara's novel. Joe Chapin, a pillar of the small Pennsylvania city in which he lived, "never did much," was not well liked, and somehow aspired anyway to be president. He has sixteen honorary pall-bearers at his funeral, none of whom liked him very much. But he is more bland than evil, and his sins are far more of omission than commission.This was an era, like "Mad Men" which takes place only a few years later, where white males rule the roost, at least in terms of position and power outside the family. But within the household, O'Hara's story shows how Joe's wife, Edith, "owns him" (this is said more than once) which was the same relationship his parents had. And, as with "Mad Men," alcohol seems essential to the life of the upper classes.There is wonderful detail about live in this decade. Clothing and domestic interiors are described in detail, college student dialogues really ring true, and ward-heeling politics are documented in detail. The characters seem pretty real and credible, even if it is hard to like very many of them.White surprised me was the seamy underside of this apparently orderly society. O'Hard leaves little out -- female homosexuality, masturbation, child molesting, abortion, married men frequenting prostitutes, even circumcision. Who knew (speaking as someone who can remember the years of my childhood)? I imagine O'Hara's intention was to show (with disapproval) the arrogance and limitations of small town elite in that era, and he succeeds in that, but the effect is more a pot-boiler to me than powerful social criticism.Hardly memorable literature, but diverting in its way and worth the time-travel experience. I had no idea that this kind of story could have been written in 1955.
Diana Stevan
Ten North Frederick won the national book award in 1956. I touched on it in my blog. It's a book I've always wanted to read, but it wasn't easy. John O'Hara wrote it with no chapters, and long paragraphs. What was fascinating about this story, was how well he depicted the characters in this small town and their political manoeuvrings. As the American election of 2012 just took place, I found what went on back in the 1930s mirrored what went on today. Politics is a dirty business, and John O'Hara showed some of its complexity. As well, he is frank on sexual matters and my understanding is that he was taken to task for the way he did this back in the 50s, which were considerably more repressed than the age we're living in now.
Jay Ginsburg
Since it came out in 1955, and recounts family history as much as 100 years before, looking at it from more than 50 years later is instructive. We see members of a wealthy family going through changes in society, often in but not really of their time. At half way through this (too) long book, I have yet to get to the steamy parts that the cover promises -- there is much more to it than the blurb indicates. The writing is somewhat awkward, the jumps from one time to another awkward, but the characters become real enough to keep me reading -- even if I don't really care for them. ...Susan
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