Sunday, April 29, 2007

To the Limit

John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra is a terrific two-fisted society novel, and a fatalistic novel of class and caste, not unlike Frank Norris's McTeague, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, or F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, to which it is often compared. It deals with a lot of the same themes as the Fitzgerald novel, class, mainly, but it seems to me more realistic, less poetic and self-consciously artistic; not quite as concerned with being the Great American Statement on what it means to succeed in the 20th Century.

For one thing, it's a lot saltier. It was a rather famous dirty book in it's day, mainly because couples, married and unmarried, rich and poor, have sex and enjoy themselves and talk about it far more suggestively about it than other books of it's day. For example, there's a scene near the end where Caroline English is on the verge of leaving her husband Julian, and goes to see her dotty old mother about it. The old woman thinks maybe her daughter and son-in-law quarreled about sex: "Is that -- is -- are you and Julian -- does he want you to do something you -- something..." Next line: "If she only knew Julian, Caroline thought; if she only knew me!"

Common epithets are hurled back and forth through the book, and it actually reaches the "mother------" stage.

Sinclair Lewis, who was something of a model for O'Hara, called the book "nothing but infantilism -- the erotic visions of a hobbledehoy behind the barn." Some readers, such as Jonathan Yardley a couple years ago, find the hobbledoy rather quaint today, partly because the language is no longer shocking and because it is scattered top to bottom with topical references that would fly over the heads of most readers. It's dedicated to Algonquin vet, influential columnist and book-plugger F.P.A., or Franklin P. Adams, who also gets a plug in the text (maybe as a form of insurance.) But for me this gives it all a certain old yellowed newspaper kind of feel, and the dialogue seems both true to its day and fresh. It gets down on the ground-level of life.

It gives away little to say it ends in death, because the title tells you that much. It's taken from a Arab fable told in a Somerset Maugham play, in which a man goes to the marketplace and sees Death, who has a startled look on his face. The man rides away to Samarra to escape Death, who, as it turns out, was only startled to see the man in the marketplace because he had an appointment with him later in the day in Samarra.

You can't get around facing the end when it arrives, in other words, and for poor Julian English, it arrives on the night of a Christmas party at the local country club. Jerry is a car dealer -- a good job for any character who is preoccupied with status (see also Updike's Rabbit Angstrom and Jerry Lundegard from the Coen Broters' Fargo.) The head of the Cadillac Motor Company in Gibbsville, Pa., he and his wife Caroline grew up on the right side of the tracks (where Julian's father remains a respected if apparently horrbly incompetent doctor) and they live in the best part of it: Lantenengo Street, along with all the other country club swells.

Outside of the country club, the world is pretty much going to hell, but here the Jazz Age is very much alive and well: there's an orchestra playing all the latest Gershwin hits, and this is still the place where the well-connected young people get drunk and get laid and the older adults attempt adultery and sometimes succeed. It is here that Death arrives for Julian, who is listening to a fat Irish Catholic boor named Harry Reilly telling one dumb joke after another, when he suddenly takes a notion to throw a drink in Harry's face, hitting him so hard that the ice gives Harry a nice shiner. As Harry is one of the richest men in town, and someone who has loaned Julian huge sums of money on occasion, Julian's sudden lapse of decorum costs him dearly, and will send his whole life into a tailspin. Julian has not just crossed the wrong guy, he has broken with social decorum, which sends him spinning into freefall, where all he can do is screw up. He drinks more, takes more chances (one with the misttress of a local gang boss), gets in another knock-down, drag-out, this time with Caroline's one-arm veteran cousin, who never liked Julian in the first place.

While Julian and Caroline are coming apart at the seams, Lute Flieger (who works for Julian) and his wife Irma are getting along rather well; possibly because they're middle-class and are by necessity a little more steeped in middle-class work ethic values.

What really got me about it was that despite having a very tight time frame -- it takes place over the course of just three eventful days, and it moves very swiftly -- O'Hara also manages to capture the scope of a world and the people in it, which he mainly does by backtracking; stopping suddenly to give a character's childhood or recent history, and sometimes by indirectly approaching major events, stopping to spend a fair amount of time with a minor character. There's a great amount of drama, where the reader's nose is pressed right up against the glass, but O'Hara also varies his approach by having major events occur off-screen, so that we hear about them later.

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