Thursday, 11 October 2012

JOHN O'HARA Appointment in Samarra (1934)

Vintage Classics/Random House UK, 2008

You went to the Gibbsville Club for lunch; Harry was there.  You went to the country club to play squash on Whit Hofman's private court, and Harry was around.  You went to the Saturday night drinking parties, and there was Harry; inescapable, everywhere.  Carter Davis was there, too, and so was Whit; so was Froggy Ogden.  But they were different.  The bad new never had worn off Harry Reilly.  And the late fall and winter seemed now to have been spoiled by room after room with Harry Reilly.  You could walk outside in the summer, but even though you can walk outside in winter, winter isn't that way.  You have to go back to the room soon, and there is no life in the winter outside of rooms.  Not in Gibbsville, which was a pretty small room itself.

The Novel:  The small Pennsylvania coal-mining community of Gibbsville during the Christmas season of 1930 seems an unlikely setting for a tale of wilful self-destruction.  It's a town where everybody knows everybody else's business, where the classes rarely mix and the lines between the 'good' and 'bad' people appear to be clearly and permanently drawn.  Friendship is everything and no one, it seems, dare defy the rigid if unspoken rules which define and govern it.

But these rules don't necessarily apply to Julian English, popular owner of the local Cadillac dealership.  Although English is considered to be one of the 'good' people – respected businessman, well-liked member of the country club, devoted husband to Caroline, a girl he's known and loved since childhood –– his conviviality is a sham, concealing a deep but secret hatred of his fellow townsmen, their hypocritical morality and, most damningly of all, himself.  

It all comes to a head at a Christmas party where Julian rashly and inexplicably throws a drink in the face of his neighbor Harry Reilly –– another of the 'good' people who recently loaned him money to keep his struggling business from sliding into bankruptcy.  This seemingly trivial act, committed in a moment of reckless drunken abandon, is enough to gradually alter the town's perceptions of him, turning friends into enemies and bringing to light the bitter and sometimes long-submerged animosity he inspires in the hearts of many of Gibbsville's most prominent citizens.  The general consensus is that Julian's a bit of a jerk –– smug, opinionated, a shirker who should have fought in World War One but somehow managed to worm his way out of it, a bit too confident of his ability to charm and hoodwink everyone he knows, particularly when the person in question happens to be female.  Although he tries to apologize to Reilly twice, this doesn't prevent him from becoming the town pariah, a sort of walking scapegoat for everything that's wrong with it and those who, willingly or not, are obliged to call it home.

The most surprising change of all, however, occurs in Julian's wife Caroline.  While she loves her husband and still gets a lot of pleasure from their very active sex life, she can neither understand nor condone his behavior, blaming it, as she's done so often in the past, on his irritating habit of drinking too much at parties.  At first she's sympathetic, agreeing that Reilly's a fool but begging Julian to apologize to him for the sake of his business, but little by little her forgiving view of her husband's ill-considered rudeness changes, leading her to spurn his sexual advances at the moment when he needs her love and affection the most.  Angered by this and by the increasing hostility of his neighbors, Julian ceases to care what happens to him and takes refuge in the arms of the local torch singer, Helene Holman –– another self-destructive decision that succeeds in completely alienating him from his wife even as it threatens to arouse the ire of Helene's boyfriend, local bootlegger Ed Charney.  But now that the line's been crossed it appears there's no re-crossing it.  Caroline walks out on him and Julian, realizing at last the terrible trick he's played upon himself, is left to face his future, or lack of one, alone. 

Harcourt, Brace & Company first US edition, 1934
Appointment in Samarra was John O'Hara's first novel and one of the first in American literature to feature a deliberately unsympathetic protagonist.  Julian English is not a likeable character but he immediately strikes the reader as being a credible human being – as strange, capricious, lost and dangerous as human beings, especially when they're drunk or feeling pressured or misunderstood, can all too often be.  By choosing to tell Julian's story not only through his eyes but also through those of Caroline, his loyal employee Lute Fleigler and Charney's delivery man Al Grecco, O'Hara creates a kind of Greek chorus effect featuring a sense of hubris and nemesis as powerful as anything to be found in the tragedies of Sophocles.  

It's the inevitability of Julian's decisions that makes them as fascinating as they are destructive, a relentless compulsiveness which makes it impossible to stop reading the book and shows why O'Hara was also a successful playwright who worked for a time, albeit unhappily, as a Hollywood screenwriter.  His ability to capture modern American speech patterns was extraordinary, as was his ability to reveal what he saw as being the quintessentially sexual nature of women –– an idea which had never truly been explored in American literature before he began exploring it with his characteristic insight and honesty.  The critic Harold Bloom was right to nominate Appointment in Samarra as one of the '100 Best Modern Novels.'  As a snapshot of its time and a glimpse into the heart of a troubled, self-hating individual and the hypocritical community which triggers and then becomes a willing participant in his downfall it is, in the truest sense of the word, a masterpiece.


JOHN O'HARA, c. 1960
The WriterJohn O'Hara enjoys the rare distinction of being one of the few authors in the world who got to compose his own epitaph.  'Better than anyone else,' he wrote of himself, 'he wrote the truth about his time. He was a professional.  He wrote honestly and well.'  Brendan Gill, a journalist colleague of O'Hara's at The New Yorker during the 1930s and 1940s, called this 'an astonishing claim' but in one sense, at least, it can't be refuted.  O'Hara's early work – the two hundred short stories he published in The New Yorker and other magazines, as well as his first two novels Appointment in Samarra and BUtterfield 8 – contain some of the most devastatingly honest insights into the American psyche ever published in the twentieth century.  If O'Hara's reputation isn't what it should be these days, then it's perhaps due more to his belligerent, difficult, social-climbing personality than it is to the outstanding quality of his important early work.

O'Hara was born in 1905 in the Pennsylvania coal mining town of Pottsville – a community that would serve as the model for the town of Gibbsville in which so much of his later fiction would be set.  His father was a surgeon who belonged to the local country club and made a good life for his wife and eight children, owning at one time five automobiles, a show farm and a stable full of horses.  Yet O'Hara grew up feeling that he didn't belong in this world, that his family's low-class Irish-Catholic heritage prevented it from being truly embraced and accepted by Pottsville's Protestant elite.  He was a man who, throughout his life, had the desire to be acclaimed and belong but simultaneously did everything in his power –– drinking, fighting, bullying and verbally abusing those around him –– to guarantee he'd remain the perpetually snubbed outsider.

Tragedy struck in 1925 when his father died without leaving a will, reducing his family to penury overnight and robbing the twenty year old O'Hara of his long-cherished dream of attending Yale University –– a blow from which his ego, according to those who knew him best, never fully recovered.  Instead of going to Yale, he was forced to take a series of menial jobs –– waiter on an ocean liner, nightclerk in a hotel, public relations man –– before finding his niche as a newspaper reporter, first in his native Pennsylvania and then in New York City.  Some critics believe that it was his early work as a reporter, with its emphasis on sticking to the facts and describing events as clearly and succinctly as possible, that formed his writing style, which has been described, and not inaccurately, as 'no style at all.'

During these years O'Hara also began to drink –– a habit which made him violent and obnoxious and cost him more than one close friendship.  (He once threatened to punch a midget at '21,' a famous New York nightclub, until another midget allegedly knocked him flat on his drunken ass.)  In 1928 he sold his first sketch to The New Yorker and soon became, along with Dorothy Parker and James Thurber, one of the genuinely admired 'stars' of the magazine.  This was in spite of the fact that he was personally loathed by its managing editor, Harold Ross, and developed a reputation for being difficult to work with because he steadfastly refused to change a single line of his work after submitting it.  The quality and popularity of his stories were enough to guarantee that Ross published them anyway.

 ERNEST HEMINGWAY (left) and JOHN O'HARA (far right), c. 1941
In 1934 he published his first novel, of which Ernest Hemingway said, 'If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read "Appointment in Samarra".'  A year later O'Hara published BUtterfield 8, a novel inspired by a news story about a beautiful girl whose dead body had mysteriously washed ashore on a Long Island beach.  The book is his imaginative recreation of the events leading up to her death and became another bestseller, cementing his reputation as a major new literary talent.  He would go on to publish another fifteen novels, the fourth of which, Pal Joey, was later adapted as a musical and turned into a successful 1957 film starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak.

Unfortunately, the acclaim he received for his first two novels proved to be the exception rather than the rule throughout the rest of his career.  The combination of hard drinking, his difficult personality and what critics began to deride as the unnecessary tawdriness and prolixity of later novels including Ten North Frederick (1956) and The Lockwood Concern (1965) saw his reputation, if not his sales, suffer a dramatic downturn.  His reputation was further tainted by his work as a magazine and newspaper columnist, in which he was outspoken in his support for the Republican Party and criticized the decision made by the Nobel Prize committee to award the 1964 Peace Prize to black civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King.  This was ironic, given that he'd always dreamed of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and believed – mistakenly as it turned out –– that he was guaranteed to do so following the death of Hemingway.  When John Steinbeck won the award in 1962, O'Hara wrote to congratulate him, adding that there was 'only one other author I'd rather see get it.' 

O'Hara died in 1970 without having won the Nobel Prize or living to see the campaign, led by fellow novelists like John Updike and EL Doctorow, to reevaluate his literary reputation and ensure his best work found its way back into print.  He was survived by his daughter Wylie and his third wife Katherine Barnes Bryan, his second wife Belle having died of congestive heart disease in 1954.

Click HERE to visit the website of THE JOHN O'HARA SOCIETY.  You can also click HERE to read a very interesting blog post by ST GEORGE BRYAN, the grandson of his second wife KATHERINE BARNES BRYAN and someone who saw and knew a very different side of the O'HARA personality.  The most recent biography –– John O'Hara: The Art of Burning Bridges written by novelist GEOFFREY WOLFF –– was published by the US firm Knopf in 2003. 

You might also enjoy:
SINCLAIR LEWIS Babbitt (1922)
DAWN POWELL Come Back To Sorrento (1932)
THOMAS WOLFE Of Time and the River (1935)

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