William T. Vollmann at The Baffler:
John O’Hara’s themes are alcoholism, infidelity, rape, perversion, child molestation, the yearning for power and financial security (many who knew the author believed this to be his own basic preoccupation), the instability of love and passion, the effects of economic substructures on the superstructures of private life (in method, if certainly not in ideology, he resembles a Marxist), boardroom and statehouse politics, and the secret corruptions of families. In many respects he is a cruel writer; not only does he portray quotidian cruelty unblinkingly and intimately, but his portrayals themselves can be cruel. While critics often prefer his short stories to his novels, my preference is the reverse of theirs. For me, a writer’s highest business is the creation of some kind of empathy, and O’Hara’s short stories rarely permit him to do more than cast his contemptuously bloodshot gaze on a situation, evoking revulsion or pity, perhaps, but nothing more.
To be sure, in the stories you will find any number of strange types, such as the sprightly, obese, sexually deviant, not unsympathetic dancer-actor-clown of “The Portly Gentleman,” or the vicious, stupid, smalltime gangsters of “The Sun-Dodgers,” usually encountered at some revealing and decisive moment. A few of these tales—I’m thinking of the bitter brilliance of “It’s Mental Work” or the cheap perversions and double-crosses of “A Phase of Life”—are as effective as the best of Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver.