Sunday, April 05, 2020

John O'Hara, Appointment in Samarra (1934)

There was a paperback copy of this in the house when I was small, and I always found it kind of intriguing and spooky: there's a man with a happy life. Three days later, he'll be dead. This is how the back-cover copy represented it to me, and, I mean, just look at the title--that's obviously what it's suggesting, isn't it? You can run away from death, but you just further seal your own doom. But I never read it, so I've remained vaguely curious about it until now.

So yes: I was expecting a sort of noir-ish thing where a guy starts down a path of self-destruction and his most frantic efforts to extricate himself only lead to him getting more trapped. And...that is not what this is. Not that there's any requirement that it be a certain thing, but really, would it kill you to accurately represent your novel? I ask you.

So our protagonist/victim is Julian English, who lives in a small town in Pennsylvania, owns a Cadillac dealership, has what seems to be a happy marriage, and in theory is doing okay. But then, at a party on Christmas Eve, he impulsively throws a drink in the face of a guy who's telling an annoying, fatuous story. This has repercussions that eventually lead to his downfall, only not really: actually, he just sort of blunders around for a few days and does some dumb things but nothing that, you would think, would likely prove fatal, and then he commits suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning. And that is the end of Julian English.

But that's only sort of what the book is about, because the real substance, if you want to call it that, lies in the absolutely endless digressions to his past and--even more--the past of minor characters who have little or no relevance: his wife's romantic history, stories about a gangster who deals mainly in bootleg alcohol (the book takes place in 1930, although there's little to no evidence that the country's in the midst of a depression) and his flunky, a journalist who writes a story about said flunky. None of the characters generate any interest, and I get the impression that ol' Julian is supposed to be sympathetic when in fact he's a reaaaal dickhead--cruel, misogynistic, generally unlikeable. This is obviously an issue with male writers of a certain generation. Nonetheless, this kind of thing could be engaging--and yet, I was just thinking, why? Sure, it's all of some limited sociological value, but O'Hara emphatically does not paint a vivid picture of a time and place, and if he's even trying to, I don't understand why we need this boring non-story about Julian. I guess you could do both of them well, but O'Hara does neither, particularly, so under the circumstances, it would have been better to focus on one or the other.

The reason I didn't try to read this when I saw it as a kid was--I'm sure I've mentioned this before--my general phobia of reading serious, "adult" books. But that's okay, because I can tell you to a certainty that if I had, I would very quickly have gotten bored and stopped. And Appointment in Samarra is extremely boring, but it's boring in a particular way: you know how, sure, you can listen to popular music from, like the sixties today, and it's fine, but if you try to go back and listen to stuff from the nineteen-tens, it invariably feels more like a museum piece than something that can still be appreciated for what it is? That's how I feel about this. It is so, so, so of-its-time. There's plenty of literature from well before when this was written that still feels vital today, but this absolutely does not. According to wikipedia, the Modern Library in 1998 designated it the twenty-second-best English-language novel of the twentieth century, which is an impressively wrong opinion, for sure, but wrong in a surprising way: I would not have thought that, in 1998, O'Hara would have retained enough residual cachet to eke his way onto such a list. He's not an incompetent writer, but he's definitely a writer whom there's no compelling reason to read.


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