• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

In 1953 Judy Garland made a splendid appearance at the opening reception for the Kentucky Derby. She was wearing a navy-blue, full-length coat; navy-blue, calfskin opera pumps with very high heels; white china beads; and she was carrying, cradled in her arms, a copy of Oakley Hall's recently published and somewhat scandalous novel Corpus of Joe Bailey. In an interview this August, Hall remembered what happened when the book came out. "I was feted," he said. "I had some brief fame."

In San Diego, Corpus of Joe Bailey also made a noteworthy entrance. The book was denounced from San Diego pulpits for being too sexy and provoked Mission Hills residents to speculate who among them was the model for the haughty Con Robinson, the political Uncle Dick, and the tormented hero, Joe Bailey. At the same time, the San Diego Union, in April 1953, hailed the book as a "long, credible" novel "bursting with vitality and immensely readable." The reviewer added, "For many people Joe Bailey will be recognizable as a guy like one they have known. He belongs to the shocked rather than the lost generation -- the kids who grew up in the '30s through the depression which couldn't happen, and got dumped into a war which shouldn't have come."

The book continues to fascinate San Diegans. On November 22, 1996, the San Diego Historical Society honored Hall with its first San Diego Author's Award. During his visit here to receive the honor, a group from the historical society took Hall around in a van to identify the locations of memorable scenes from Corpus of Joe Bailey. As the Union-Tribune noted the day before the ceremony, the first question of Hall is sure to be "Are you Joe Bailey?"

Corpus of Joe Bailey both belongs to its time and stands over it; the book has one foot planted in the past, in the fertile garden of hardy American fiction, the other hesitantly canting toward the solipsistic plaints of today. Hall dramatized the frustrating, often absurd conundrums that young people found around every corner during the '50s. Here are the incomprehensible codes of class -- place of birth, school attended, car driven, jacket worn, fraternity joined -- that dictated whether you were in or whether you were out and that excited novelists like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O'Hara. Here as well are the restrictions that came with obedience to one's family and to sexual decorum, the restraints that confused so many young people as they lurched toward the realization that they would be either winners or losers in a new era. In his introduction to the 1984 reissue of Corpus of Joe Bailey, Herbert Gold forgot all these petty social inconveniences (or maybe he never faced them) and romanticized all that people from Joe's generation had come to miss and what reading the book might help them to recall. "People 'of a certain age,' " he wrote, "remember what it was like to think of going to the beach during the last days of summer vacation, to steal sexy magazines from newsstands, to read them in a secret place, to tear out and crumple and burn them, to work on model airplanes, to dream of automobiles and girls and heroism in war, to try to imagine parents in a different life." And, he added, "To think, finally, about death." Hall audited his period's most innocent and most base impulses.

But the book isn't trapped by the '50s. It tells a story that had long been told in fiction and that for better or worse is now usually told in memoirs. It's a bildungsroman, a story that explores the moral growth (spiritual growth in some cases, but not this one) of a single character. Joe is "nine or ten or eleven" when the book opens, and let's just say he's older when it ends. To tell this story Hall calls on a motif used most extraordinarily by William Faulkner, in As I Lay Dying; he titles sections of Corpus of Joe Bailey after major characters, so that by the end we have a group portrait in addition to a more dimensional sense of the hero. And part of what makes Joe Bailey who he is is an obsession with what comes next that is so consuming (no matter how elusive the answer) that we must sympathize with him. We believe Joe. "One thing about Joe Bailey," Hall told me, "I've never written a novel and had so many people tell me, 'That's the story of my life.' "

Some of the novel's palpability comes from its brawn. As the title suggests, a lot of the book is concerned with Joe's body -- with its growth, its strength on the football field, its balance on a surfboard. Joe always seems just about to crack, to hurl the full weight of the world off his shoulders. But this corporeality doesn't belong just to Joe; much of it comes from Oakley Hall. He writes a direct, sturdy prose, which in 1953 still reflected his admiration for Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and the stories in Black Mask, the popular pulp magazine. In the very first paragraph of the book Hall flexes his muscles, describing the geography of San Diego with references to a "bent elbow," a "forearm," and an "artery"; Mission Hills, as he saw it then, "resembles very much a hand with the fingers clenched to hold it tightly there."

Oakley Hall was born in La Jolla in 1920, but his family moved to Mission Hills when he was still young. His parents split when he was a boy and he shuttled between his father, who remained in Mission Hills for a while; his grandmother, who lived around the corner from his father; and his mother, who moved to Hawaii. Hall studied at the University of Hawaii and San Diego State (where he first became interested in writing), then graduated from UC Berkeley. He joined the Marines after college and was stationed at Camp Pendleton. He married his wife Barbara in 1945 before being sent to Maui, where he was about to be shipped to war when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Hall used his GI Bill money to study writing at Columbia and Iowa and to work on Corpus of Joe Bailey. His first novel, So Many Doors, part of which is also set in San Diego, was published by Random House in 1950. Throughout the '50s, Hall published several mysteries under the pseudonyms O. M. Hall (Murder City, 1950; Wanton City, 1951) and Jason Manor (The Girl in the Red Jaguar, 1955; The Pawns of Fear, 1955; The Tramplers, 1956). He was an avid athlete -- a body surfer, a tennis player, and a downhill skier. In 1963 he published The Downhill Racers, which was turned into a movie directed by the cinema verité filmmaker Michael Ritchie and starred Robert Redford. Hall's 1958 novel Warlock, a fictional account of Wyatt Earp, earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination and was turned into a movie starring Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn. All told, Oakley Hall has published over 20 novels -- Westerns, historical novels, and mysteries -- and two books about fiction writing.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader

Comments

Sign in to comment

Join our
newsletter list

Enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe

Each newsletter subscription
means another chance to win!

Close