Thursday, October 31, 2013

Flame-Out in Pennsylvania

Appointment in SamarraAppointment in Samarra 
by John O'Hara

“When Caroline Walker fell in love with Julian English she was a little tired of him. That was in the summer of 1926, one of the most unimportant years in the history of the United States, and the year in which Caroline Walker was sure her life had reached a pinnacle of uselessness.”   ― John O'Hara, Appointment in Samarra

The title for John O'Hara's first novel was taken from a short parable related by W. Somerset Maugham and which O'Hara used as the epigraph for his novel. While it is a parable of death the novel is more of a slice of life as O'Hara does for fictional Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, what William Faulkner did for Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi: surveyed its social life and drew its psychic outlines. O'Hara does it in a realistic and worldly fashion, without Faulkner's taste for mythic inference or the poetry of his prose. I can sometimes see signs of O'Hara in the novels of Updike or Roth.

The first chapter of Appointment in Samarra puts you into the head of Luther (Lute) Fliegler, an employee of the Cadillac dealership that is owned by the protagonist, Julian English. Lute is a regular guy with a wife and three kids and is, along with his wife, basically happy. Julian is a man who is perpetually hungover, who has squandered what fate gave him. He lives on the right side of the tracks, with a country club membership and a wife who loves him, but he would rather spend his time drinking and philandering. This short novel outlines his decline and fall, over the course of just 72 hours around Christmas Day , showing him in the throes of too much spending, too much liquor compounded by three calamitous missteps. Each calamity is all the more powerful due to its extremely petty and preventable nature. In Faulkner the tragedies all seem to be comparable to Greek tragedy, even when they're happening among the lowlifes. In O'Hara's novels the commoners get there come-uppance and it is as if they could be you.

O'Hara is very clever. He subtly lets his characters talk about Julian's actions while Julian worries about them to a point; all the while they are never described in any detail resulting in their assuming an even more potent power over his existence. But with all of his worrying I found it difficult to understand his reaction to the events of three short days. During a holiday party at his country club, one filled with people Julian did not like and girls he describes simply as "sad birds", Julian has  an unexpected chat with the local Monsignor.  In it he sums up his life with these words:

"I never was meant to be a Cadillac dealer or any other kind of dealer, Father," said Julian. "That sounded to me as though--you're not a frustrated literary man, by any chance, are you? God forbid."
"Oh, no," said Julian. "I'm not anything. I guess I should have been a doctor."(p 92)

Perhaps this interchange should not be unexpected because Julian could never be that honest with anyone he really knew well, least of all his own Father, the doctor.

O'Hara captures the town and its people with his prose and with a few essential details makes their place in the small town society transparent. His style is very readable and I found this similar to other of his novels, even the long ones like From the Terrace, it was  difficult to put down.

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Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary as usual.

I have not read O'Hara but this sounds very good.

These stories of small and sad lives are often, too me, the bleakest and most depressing sort of narrative out there.

The comparisons to Faulkner, Roth and Updike are intriguing.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. O'Hara is best at chronicling lives like Julian's and Caroline's. He excels at characterization; there is a fascinating supporting character named Al Grecco who works for the chief local mobster. That and great dialogue make this a short, fast-paced introduction to O'Hara and his fictional world.