Saturday, May 11, 2013


The point of view in John O'Hara's first novel, APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA is that of a disgruntled teenager whose nose is glued, willy-nilly,  to a fishbowl.  Granted, O'Hara had a keen ear for dialogue and a clever outsider's acute powers of observation.Trouble is that as the son of a doctor living in mansion--the former home of the Yeungling brewery family--O''Hara's otherness  is a matter a perception.Possibly,in  his fishbowl,  Pottsville, Pennsylvannia, renamed as Gibbsville, in the novel, being an Irish Catholic was a social handicap. So much has changed in the 43 years that followed the publication of this book, its atmosphere reeks as strongly of must as an old attic.Therein lies O'Hara's  importance as a social historian and critic. Even as one deplores the infantile poking of eyes, the story remains as a decaying sample of the mores of an earlier and sadder America.

APPOINTMENT AT SAMARRA holds no surprises. O'Hara's gives away the ending away in the epigraph, a tale about a man who attempts to cheat death by fleeing Baghdad for Samarra, where he is meant to die. Why the suicide of the protagonist, Julian English, is unavoidable is a hurdle for  the modern reader to jump. Which modern reader  has not  read about  villains, such as the Watergate Seven,  who committed crimes, got religion, wrote books and reemerged,  as respectable members of society?  But anyone who lives in a small knows that the shelf life of middle class scandals is eternal. The pastor who is said to have slept with a colleague's wife, the councilperson who allegedly paid for his wife's assassination,the gay professor rumoured to have drugged his students in order to have his way with them,  the lawyer arrested in a child porn sting, are forever marked in the minds of most small town people. Is it a stretch, then, to believe  that once Julian throws a drink on the face a creditor he secretly despises, he might as well kill himself? Perhaps.
At a small town the most painful death is a social death. That means ineligibility for  A-list dinner parties, the Country Club, Cotillion, Kiwanis, Rotary, the Merchants Association. all the silly institution that give people an illusion of superiority. In America, where money determines social status,social ostracism can cause serious financial damage in that it tends to interfere with networking. In O'Hara's time, the Country Club was the world and never mind how ludicrously tiny, boring  and airless it was. There,  the ethnically homogeneous   in-crowd came to flex its monetary muscle and as the hoodlum Al Grecco knew, people with that kind of muscle do not take kindly to having bootleg or any sort of drink  thrown at their faces. If the ice in the drink gives the rich person a black ete, it is curtains for you, buddy, just as it was for Julian. By the way, I find Al Grecco, an unmitigated ruffian, the only likeable character in this story.
Why the account of waht is meant as a tragedy reads as a supremely unimportant tempest in a fishbowl is due, in part, to Zeitgeist. After nearly half a century since its launching, the conventions that were so important in O'Hara's time are on the wane. Unless the reader keeps in mind that there were no reliable contraceptives in Gibbsville, it is hard not to scoff at Julian's wife, Caroline, coy request about  "a thing" (condom)as he is about to deflower--deflower is now a mustily sexist term-- her.In America, the importance of virginity, the risk of pregnancy and its consequences declined dramatically in importance in the past 43 years. Remove the idea of virginity as a commodity, of woman as someone who submits---this is a biggie in O'Hara's book--rather than participates in sex, remove the idea that women can be more than wives and man can be more than the sum total of a paycheck and O'Hara little edifice crumbles.
It is essential to remember that in the Gibbsvilles of the Twenties, it all mattered, money, virginity, propriety and property.possibly, a person with more gumption would leave Gibbsville for another town where he could reinvent himself, I know. I live in a place the harboured at some time or another, witness protection program wise guys,  corps-de-ballet soupers turned Balanchine, alleged son of alleged tycoon allegedly related to the house of Rothschild,But, no.   It took all of three days in his stuffy little world for Julian to go from a member of the club to a nobody. Methinks he was a nobody all along and that is what killed him.

1 comment:

  1. And to all that I would only add, "Thank goodness!"

    Excellent observations, and very well put.


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