Friday, January 31, 2014

Two by O'Hara

John O'Hara was born on this day in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in 1905. He went on to lead a very successful career in journalism. However, O'Hara's real passion was in fiction writing, and he wrote 374 short stories and 18 novels throughout his lifetime. He was particularly known for an uncannily accurate ear for dialogue. O'Hara was a keen observer of social status and class differences, and wrote frequently about the socially ambitious.  He also wrote a few screenplays before his death in 1970.  Here are two of my favorite of his novels:

Appointment in Samarra
Appointment 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 by W. Somerset Maugham which forms the epigraph for the 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.

From The Terrace
From The Terrace 

by John O'Hara

“They say great themes make great novels.. but what these young writers don't understand is that there is no greater theme than men and women.”  ― John O'Hara

This massive novel is rooted in eastern Pennsylvania. The story centers on the character of Raymond Alfred Eaton whose life follows the pattern initiated by the rebuffs and rejection and the purposeful neglect by his father, the guilt associations with the death of a young girl and an older woman, and the escapism of his mother. Samuel Eaton, head of his own iron works, turns against Alfred with the death of his first drives him to an inner loneliness and defensiveness which prep school and Princeton help, first, to intensify and then diminish. Contacts with the world of wealth through Lex Porter, the Navy in World War I, and the money he sent him to New York City for a fling in airplane production after his marriage to Mary. His association with the powerful private bank of MacHardie & Company insures that the marriage will continue in spite of his fling with a mistress, and his term an Assistant Secretary of the Navy in World War II leaves its mark with the death of his first son, so that when divorce from Mary is finally accomplished he becomes a man who, in failing himself, has also failed others.

O'Hara was an expert in the analysis, of social and sexual tribal rites. Never more than here did he indulge his analytical talent and, through the various relationships involving Alfred, portraying physical intimacies, business machinations, governmental attitudes and other forms of social behavior. Through all the states of love -- hate -- pity there is seldom any state of grace, and an overwhelming sense of explicit reportage makes this sometimes appear to be a too revealing mirror, in which a present anguish is reflected in its cumulative influential past. Not dissimilar to the nuances of John Cheever's Wapshot Chronicle, this novel rewards the reader who enjoys a microscopic view of social life.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

I have never read O'Hara but these well thought out character and social studies very much appeal to me.

In addition to these two, he seems to have a very impressive list of works.

James said...

You have captured the essence of O'Hara with your reference to "character and social studies". Appointment in Samarra is a good place to start with O'Hara; short and to the point.
If he has any faults in his later novels, Ten North Frederick, The Lockwood Concern, and the one I reviewed here it is in their length (although he wasn't as consumed by logorrhea as Thomas Wolfe).