Monday, February 27, 2017

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA” by John O’Hara (first published in 1934)

            One of the hardest things to do, with any sort of critical impartiality, is to read for the first time a book by an author whose reputation you already know well. The reputation of American novelist John O’Hara (1905-1970) was already firmly embedded in my head before I read Appointment in Samarra, the only one of his books that I’ve ever read.

            O’Hara, said repute, was the sharp young writer of tough, realist stories in the late 1920s, who had more short stories accepted by the New Yorker than any other writer ever. When he was 29 he produced his best book, Appointment in Samarra, which was immediately a critical and popular success. People like Dorothy Parker, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway raved about it, and saw O’Hara as the coming man of hard-nosed realist fiction. But thereafter, as far as the critics were concerned, O’Hara’s career went downhill. He did win literary awards and was often a bestseller. But with novels like BUtterfield 8, A Rage to Live, Ten North Frederick and From the Terrace, what he produced were fat, overblown soap-operas, which sometimes attracted readers by what was then regarded as sexual explicitness. (Ironically, the fate of most of them was to be filmed by old Hollywood in the 1950s and early 1960s, when censorship was still such that the sex stuff was largely glossed out and only the soap remained.) Apparently O’Hara’s personality (a boastful heavy-drinker) didn’t help his reputation. But the main thing was that, by the 1960s and ever since, if you said you admired O’Hara, you were labelling yourself as an out-of-date middlebrow.

            There now. I have just skewered a writer’s reputation without having read his books, because that is what every reference I’d seen said about him. So I carried this baggage in my head before I opened Appointment in Samarra.

Now that I’ve read it, I think I can see both why it was once such a critical success, and why O’Hara subsequently went nowhere in particular.

Appointment in Samarra is set in “Gibbsville – 24,032 population estimated 1930”, apparently based on O’Hara’s hometown, the small city of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, near the coal-mining country. Somewhere in the novel it is mentioned that Herbert Hoover is president so the story, though published in 1934, is obviously set before 1932 (when Roosevelt was elected) and therefore before prohibition was repealed. Illegal booze, drunk copiously and openly, is a major part of the story.

Julian English, son of a wealthy father but now struggling to make a living, runs a franchise selling expensive cars. As far as most people are concerned, his marriage to Caroline is stable and happy. But Julian is nagged at by the sense that his life is meaningless. The story follows Julian English through three or four days around Christmastime in which he makes enemies, makes sexual passes at women, drinks heavily, fights, feels self-pity, and finally self-destructs.

At a country-club Christmas party, he throws a drink in the face of a garrulous raconteur, Harry Reilly, just for the hell of it, and a fight ensues.  Harry has enough influence and pull to make a sizeable part of the town turn against Julian English and this threatens custom to his franchise. Julian begins to bicker with his wife. At another seasonal gathering he circulates around the room making such boorish and offensive remarks that people figure he is already drunk. Then, knowing full well that his wife is watching, he twice dances with the mistress of a small-time local gangster and bootlegger, and then takes the woman outside for a sexual assignation in his car. In another club, again sloshed, he gets into a fight with a whole bunch of men when his brother-in-law calls him out for his sexual infidelity.

His wife Caroline had been planning a Christmas party, but she cancels it when it’s clear that nobody would want to come to Julian’s place. Caroline walks out on him, moves in with her mother, and starts talking about divorce. Now chronically boozed, Julian’s last misdemeanour is when he attempts to seduce a young woman reporter who comes calling. “Is there anything I haven’t done? Anybody I haven’t insulted at least indirectly?” he asks himself in the second-to-last chapter. Blotto, and swathed in self-pity, he turns on the engine of his car, climbs in the back seat and passes out. Carbon monoxide does its stuff.

It is a long, depressing downward slide to this suicide. But in a way the final chapter, after Julian English’s death, is the most devastating, for it is the most nihilistic. It tells us that the man is soon forgotten, that his death is rapidly accommodated by those closest to him and nobody really mourns.

I am aware that the novel’s setting (1930 or 1931) was not the Jazz Age and not the Roaring Twenties. The Depression had already struck. Even so, much of the novel reads like a farewell to the whole vacuity of the wild, boozing, partying 1920s What did all those parties and dances and alcohol and jazz and country clubs and flashy cars amount to? A corpse in a garage.

There are many things that would have marked the novel out as daring and risqué when it was first published. Chapter One opens with a minor character wondering if he should have sex with his wife and whether her diaphragm is in. There are plenty of fumbled, drunken sexual encounters and propositions by Julian English. In Chapter 7, Julian English’s wife Caroline, in bed, has a soliloquy in which she wonders about the probability of Julian having slept with another man’s mistress. (This “woman soliloquising in bed” thing - had O’Hara read Molly Bloom?). So this is a frank novel for its day and age, and hard and sceptical in its view of life.

But some things deaden it. Basically, we have to take Julian English’s will to self-destruction on trust. There are a few references to his surgeon-father’s disapproval of him, leading us to infer that perhaps, under his salesman bluster, he suffers from a big inferiority complex. And yet that is about it for motivation. He does what he does in an overheated atmosphere of partying, drinking and macho competition, and that is all there is to it. We pity the poor, lost idiot for taking his downward path, but it doesn’t amount to tragedy.

More distancing, though, there is John O’Hara’s will to chronicle everything, like a reporter afraid of missing something in the background. In Chapter Four, when Julian and Caroline go to a country club, we are given all the sociological details of such an institution, as if O’Hara is unsure whether he is a novelist or an anthropologist – there are orderly (and editorial-like) paragraphs on how Protestants (who are Freemasons) relate to Catholics (who are Knights of Columbus) in this town and we are told about the locals’ mating habits and the way dances and socials are arranged so that plain girls are included. When Chapter 5 appears, O’Hara gives us the whole background of Caroline English’s relationships with men. The Bryn Mawr girl never lost her virginity before she married Julian, but sometimes came as close as the morality of the 1920s would allow. One almost feels the chapter should be called “Sexuality and Courtships Rituals of Young American Women, 1921 to 1928” or some such.

Then there is O’Hara’s addiction to what I can only call information-loading. When a character is introduced, we always get a couple of paragraphs of character-sketch, noting the appropriate sociological details, regardless of how important or unimportant that character is to the tale’s development. Here is O’Hara in Chapter 2,

introducing the small-time crim who goes by the nickname “Al Grecco”:

Al usually had breakfast at this time if he was up. He ate eggs and bacon for breakfast, had a small steak or something like that at seven in the evening, and then after midnight he usually ate what he called his big meal: a thick steak with boiled potatoes, piece of pie and many cups of coffee. He was about five feet six with his high heels, and weighed about 130 pounds with his suit on. He had been with Ed Charney [a more important gangster] and eating regularly for four years, but he did not gain much weight. Stayed about the same. His bones were small, and he was a thin little man in every part of him. He was born in Gibbsville, the son of Italian parents. His father worked on a navvy gang and supported six children, of whom Al was the third. Al’s name was not Al, and it was not Grecco. His real name was Anthony Joseph Murascho….”

And so the paragraph trundles on and on.

O’Hara has a fascination for physical details, but it can lead him close to what appears to be padding. At the opening of Chapter 8, for example, his main dramatic purpose is to show us that Julian English is financially in trouble, but instead of merely telling us, he has to convey all the contents of English’s accounts, thus:

Mary Klein [the office help] had gone to lunch and Julian was alone in the office, with a small array of sheets of paper on which were rows of figures, names, technical words: Number of cars sold in 1930; our cut on new cars sold; gas and oil profit 1930; tires and accessories profit 1930; profit on resale of cars taken in trade; other profit; insurance on building; ins. on equipment; ins. on rolling stock; interest on bldg. ; taxes; advertising; graft; expenses; light; other elec. outlay; heat; tool replacement; licenses; office stuff incl. stationery; workmen’s compensation; protective association; telephones; bad debts; stamps; trade-in losses; lawyer &accountant fees; building repairs; losses not covered by ins.;  plumber; depreciation on bldg.; deprc. on equipment; deprc. on trade-in jobs;  deprc. on new cars not moved; contributions to charity; cash advance to self; notes due at bank; cash needed for payroll…. As a result of his figuring, Julian announced to the empty room: ‘I have to have five thousand dollars.’ ”

[Interesting to note the payoff for “graft” there, by the way].

We are, in effect, swamped by the externals – all the things O’Hara feels he has to tell us about what people wore, what they drank and ate, what sort of cars they drove, where they had been raised and what schools they went to, their preferred brands of booze, how often they had sex, the contents of their account books, and so forth. As reportage, it is often historically interesting. But as for the characters – they remain “types”.

In one of his author-caricatures for the New York Review of Books, David Levine once depicted John O’Hara as a racing punter with binoculars at the ready. This captures the problem perfectly. O’Hara sees people from a great distance as if he is observing categories rather than real people. He watches. He documents. He does not engage.

Perversely, I enjoyed reading much of Appointment in Samarra, and I would never dismiss a novel that is still readable after over 80 years. Even so, my enjoyment was more the historical one of learning about the habits of a defunct society than the literary one of engaging with people and style.

Nit-Picking Footnote: When I reviewed Ernest Hemingway’s egotistical memoir A Moveable Feast on this blog, I noted that one of the things that irritated me about Hemingway was his lazy over-use of the adjective “fine” to suggest approbation. About two-thirds of the way through Chapter 4 of Appointment in Samarra, I find Julian English reflecting “It was a fine night. (Fine had been a romantic word in his vocabulary ever since he read A Farewell to Arms, but this was one time he felt justified in using it.) The fine snow was still there, covering almost everything as far as the eye could see.” I think John O’Hara spotted this irritating mannerism too, so score one to John O’Hara.

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