Oakley Hall, author "The Downhill Racers"

Passing Date: 
Monday, May 12, 2008


Published: May 16, 2008

Oakley Hall, the author of the novels “Warlock” and “The Downhill Racers” and a literary heir to fellow California writers like Wallace Stegner, at his home in Nevada City, Calif. He was 87 and lived in Nevada City, Squaw Valley and San Francisco.

Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle, via AP

Oakley Hall

Mr. Hall, who began his career writing tightly constructed mystery novels, produced a steady stream of works, most set in the American West, of which the best known is “Warlock” (1958), a fictional reimagining of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Called “one of our best American novels” in a Holiday magazine review by Thomas Pynchon, it was made into a film of the same name with Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda.

The book retains a cult following and even inspired the name of a rock group, Oakley Hall. It was reissued in 2005 by The New York Review of Books.

Another of his novels, “The Downhill Racers” (1963), was made into the movie “Downhill Racer” with Robert Redford in 1969.

Mr. Hall was born in San Diego but spent much of his childhood in Hawaii, where he was taken by his mother after she and his father divorced. She eked out a living making a line of greeting cards with seashells glued on.

Mr. Hall waited tables to earn his keep at a local boarding school and in summers sprayed weeds on a sugar cane plantation and stacked pineapple cans for Dole. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1943, he served in the Marine Corps for the duration of World War II.

In 1945 he married Barbara Edinger, who survives him along with Ms. Jones, two other daughters, Sands Hall and Tracy Hall, and a son, Oakley Hall III, all of Nevada City; and seven grandchildren.

After the war, Mr. Hall went to New York to study writing at Columbia University. A quick learner, he wrote a mystery novel, “Murder City,” in two weeks and sold it to Farrar Straus, which published it in 1949.

After spending a year in Europe, he entered the writing program at the University of Iowa, where he earned a master’s degree in 1950. Often writing under the pen names O. M. Hall or Jason Manor, Mr. Hall ranged far and wide for locations and subjects. He returned to genre fiction in crime novels like “Too Dead to Run” (1953) and in a series of historical mysteries featuring the mordant San Francisco journalist Ambrose Bierce as protagonist. He also explored psychological drama in “Lullaby” (1982).

He is best known, however, for his novels set in the Old West, among them “The Bad Lands” (1978), “The Coming of the Kid” (1985), “Apaches” (1986) and “Separations” (1997). In 1976 he wrote the libretto for an opera composed by Andrew Imbrie, based on Mr. Stegner’s novel “Angle of Repose,” about a severely disabled professor writing the story of his pioneer forebears.

For nearly 20 years, until his retirement in 1990, Mr. Hall directed the writing program at the University of California, Irvine, where his students included Richard Ford and Michael Chabon. In 1969 he helped found the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, in Nevada City, a summer writers’ conference where his students included Amy Tan. It has been directed since 1992 by Ms. Jones.

In addition to his novels, Mr. Hall wrote two books aimed at aspiring writers, “The Art & Craft of Novel Writing” (1994) and “How Fiction Works” (2000). 


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