Story Playlist 16: Graven Image

John O’Hara: “Graven Image” (1943) It takes a man’s man to admit that he doesn’t understand something, especially when the man in question—me—is a professor. But I don’t understand as much as I’d like to about the stories of the scandalously under-sung John O’Hara, but I love them, admire them, and want desperately to know more.

O’Hara is all too little-known, but was a stalwart of New Yorker fiction, beginning in the 1920s and into the 1960s; in fact it’s been claimed he “invented the New Yorker story.” Of his longer fiction, he is best known for his novel, Appointment in Samarra, which sounds exotic (I read it expecting some sort of international spy novel), but is actually about the intrigues among patrician socialite couples in suburban American—also an exotic locale, but not quite what I had in mind. O’Hara’s fiction balances on a tightrope, telling you just enough to figure out what he means (most of the time), offering up a puzzle with about 80% of the pieces filled in, and leaving it to the reader to imagine how the rest of it should look. As I read his stories I understand their subtlety, their nuance, the layers of information conveyed (if you know how to read them), but I’m also aware that I have to work to understand them, and I rarely feel that I “get” them 100%. This is the opposite of beach-reading. It’s more of a hike, but one with spectacular views during your ascent.

There is little razzle-dazzle in O’Hara’s worlds. Nothing supernatural or macabre, no murders, no heists. He paints chessboards of social interaction, specifically, social interaction in the post-war-to-Mad Men era of New York and its environs. His characters are defined by the schools they attended and their social milieu. They duel with words and jockey for power, cut each other down, and hunt in packs.

“Graven Image” is an exemplary O’Hara story, bullet-sized (a slender three pages). The setting is during FDR’s wartime cabinet. An unnamed Under-Secretary, described simply as a “little man,” meets with Browning, a former Harvard classmate, who lunches with him in hopes of asking him for a job with the administration, even though Browning is a Republican. Over the course of lunch, we realize that the Under-Secretary comes from a lower social class than does Browning, who was a member of the elitist Porcellian Club at Harvard. Club members carry a gilded pig, the “graven image” of the title, as a symbol of their past membership, and it is said to open doors. The Under-Secretary would have liked to have been a member, but was never invited, and is still sore about it.

Browning manages to charm the Under-Secretary during lunch, playing to the “little man’s” ego, to the point where the Under-Secretary is prepared to call in a few favors and get Browning the job he seeks. Browning is thrilled and they toast to celebrate, the Under-Secretary sipping a cordial, Browning downing half his Scotch. Loosened by the drink and the good news, Browning admits that he had been nervous about asking the Under-Secretary for help because of the Porcellian issue. Then he lets slip: “I don’t know why fellows like you—you never would have made it in a thousand years, but …” And without looking up from his drink, Browning realizes he’s put his foot in his mouth, and says the now-famous line, “but I’ve said exactly the wrong thing, haven’t I?” Indeed he has, as the Under-Secretary replies, before leaving. Browning has lost the chance at the job, and the Under-Secretary leaves, “all dignity.”

Along the way, O’Hara treats us to a series of hidden codes, hidden in plain sight. The doorman at the restaurant where Browning and the Under-Secretary dine is the victim of a version of special privilege on the part of the Under-Secretary, and gets a passive-aggressive revenge, mirroring the later incident over lunch. The doorman asks the Under-Secretary how long he will be, stating that if he won’t be long then he’d allow his driver to keep the car in the crescent driveway, rather than obliging him to park it. The Under-Secretary, rather pretentiously, replies “Leave it there anyway.” The doorman later mumbles to himself, “It was a long time coming. It took him longer than most, but sooner or later all of them …” And then O’Hara cuts him off.

We must infer what he is talking about. My best guess is that the doorman refers to people in positions of power who start out nice and humble, but eventually grow into their big britches. Perhaps the Under-Secretary was kind and deferential to staff in the past, but has since become just as haughty as those Porcellian members the Under-Secretary felt alienated from. There is also the suggestion that the alienation from an elitist club forced a reaction in the Under-Secretary to batten down his own hatches and alienate others in retaliation. These subtle tugs-of-war are the arrows in O’Hara’s quiver, and the puzzles he lays out. His narrative voice never explains away what’s going on. He always shows, rather than tells, and expects the patient and thoughtful reader to figure out the rest.

The outstanding puzzle is just what about the Under-Secretary made it impossible for him ever to be admitted to the Porcellian. I first thought that the Under-Secretary must be Jewish, as Harvard only occasionally accepted Jews before they, like other Ivy League schools, turned over a new leaf and focused on diversifying their student body. The Porcellian very occasionally accepted Jews, and it was not until 1983 that the first black student was accepted, and that was only because he had studied at the elite prep school, St. Paul’s. The Porcellian, founded in 1791, lost much of its Boston Brahmin influence around the turn of the last century, but it was still a bastion of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, like Browning. Whether the Under-Secretary could “never in a thousand years” have been accepted at the club because he was Jewish, possibly because he was Catholic, or simply because he came from a working-class background, is not clear.

Which non-WASP social group does Browning mean, when he says “fellows like you?” The answer is probably buried in the text of “Graven Image,” but it is a buried treasure I was unable to unearth. But with O’Hara’s stories, the process of digging in the ground is such intelligent fun that the occasional gold coin that remains buried beyond our reach is par for the course—it means we have something to dig for, to read for.