Tuesday, September 29, 2020

And then there were people. Terrible people - John O'Hara fills up Appointment in Samarra

Appointment in Samarra has the restless energy that a jumpy 28-year old pours into a first novel.  The three-day crash of a doomed protagonist would fill the 216-page novel of many writers.  Not this novel.

Three major overlapping techniques:

1.  Speech.  Not dialogue, exactly, but talk, chatter, words said aloud.

“Jeez,” he said.  “Jeezozz H. Kee-rist.  You hear about what just happened?”  (1.I, 15)

I would now like to read a book about the relationship between Hollywood writing and high-falutin’ fiction in the 1930s.  Who borrows from whom; which borrows what.  It is easy to insert your favorite pre-Code Hollywood actor into the book.  Try it here with James Cagney, who in 1930 was almost exactly the right age for the part (Caroline, Julian English’s wife, goes first – she’s Joan Blondell, let’s say – and they’re on the phone):

“It’s about time someone slapped your face.  Now I want you to understand this, old boy.  If you come home drunk this afternoon and start raising hell, I’ll simply call up every person we’ve invited and call off the party.”

“You’ll simply, huh?”

“Oh, shut up,” she said, and ended the call.

“She’ll simply,” he said to the telephone, and gently replaced the handpiece in the cradle.  “She’ll simply.” (8, 171)

It’s not just speech, but internal language, too:

It was a fine night.  (Fine had been a romantic word in his vocabulary ever since he read A Farewell to Arms, but this was one time when he felt justified using it.)  (4.II, 85)

That banality, the “fine night,” is directly assigned to the character, who thinks “fine snow” a couple of times, pounding the word dead before giving it up for a while.

2. People.  There are so many people in the novel.  How many named characters, I wonder?

And then there were people.  Terrible people, who didn’t have to do anything to make them terrible, but were just terrible people.  (4.II, 82)

In my edition there are thirteen named people, none of whom are really characters in the novel, just on that page.  Plenty of the names in this crowded novel are real characters, however briefly, which leads to

3. Digression.  The novel wanders, the narrator wanders.  He starts chapters from a distance – “Gibbsville moved up from the status of borough and became a third class city in 1911, but in 1930” etc., and this, part of the first sentence of Chapter 9, is how O’Hara begins the climax of the novel.  Chapter 3 begins with the history of bituminous versus anthracite coal regions in Pennsylvania, and the consequences to unionization.  The dissertation on zones in the middle of Chapter 8 is an odd one.  “Your home is the center of many zones” (176), then about a half page more on the theme.

Sometimes he simply wanders over to another character.  The most important is Caroline, who we heard on the phone earlier, Julian’s wife.  She stars in a shadow novel, one I can imagine many readers preferring, about a wife dealing with a husband who self-destructs.  Chapter 5 is devoted entirely to what we might call her early sex life, the negotiations of a young American woman in the marriage market of the mid-1920s.  It could be published as a separate story.  Chapter 7 is mostly Julian at work in the morning, but it suddenly hops to Caroline in bed, a two page stream of consciousness passage, like it’s a tribute to Molly Bloom in Ulysses.

The gangster subplot surprised me.  Al Grecco is the right-hand man of the local bootlegger.  O’Hara spends a lot of time with Grecco.  When the plot intersects with the main story, it provides another way for Julian to subconsciously kill himself – suicide by mobster.  Grecco is important enough that, while eating his Christmas turkey dinner, O’Hara spends nine pages on his early history, how a juvenile delinquent became a prizefighter and then a small-time mob enforcer.  And also why his alias is “Al Grecco,” part of a two-page digression within the digression about the reporter, Lydia Faunce Browne, who named him:

Lydia’s secret favorite adjective for herself was keen…  She felt sorry for prostitutes on all occasions; she thought milk for babies ought to be pure; she thought Germany was not altogether responsible for the World War; she did not believe in Prohibition (“It did not prohibit,” she often said).  She smoked cigarettes one right after the other, and did not care who knew it; and she never was more than five minutes out of the office before she was talking in newspaper argot, not all of it quite accurate.  (2.III, 39-40)

This is quite a lot to know about a character who will never be seen again.  Maybe this is the profligacy of a short story writer.

Reese at Typings found it a trial to spend too much time with Julian English.  “Self-destructive alcoholics are hard to take, in fiction as in life.”  O’Hara may well have agreed.  So he wanders off.


  1. i wonder about intentionality; did O'Hara sit down and write an outline of what he wanted to convey, or did he do it Faulkner-wise, off the top of his head? sort of an ongoing self analysis of a kind. and how much was he influenced by Hemingway? i've haven't read a lot of his work (O'Hara)but some and i recall getting the impression that he was blathering to a considerable extent... of course i may wrong and the blather might be on my own part, lol...

  2. Faulkner had his books in his head when he wrote them. They were all planned out. He knew what he was writing before he wrote it.

    I don't know about O'Hara. More conceptual or more improvisatory? I don't know. The Hemingway influence is definitely there. It was hard to escape in the 1930s.

    There are some passages in Appointment that are blather and likely meant as such. It is part of O'Hara's joy in speech. Sometimes he just lets characters chatter. Blah blah blah, but with texture.

    "Who wants to dance? I got rhythm, I got rhythm!" sang Dutch Snyder.

    "Yeah. You got rhythm. You said it you got rhythm," said Emily. (p. 123)

    These characters are all, I should note moving from "very drunk" to "extremely drunk." But this is blather, and it goes on for several pages.

  3. Must have been restless when I was reading because all three of these techniques were things I enjoyed, even though they seemed to leave us with a lot of loose ends (all that time with Al Grecco and we don't really know where his story goes, just hints). But I think the speech was my favorite, the rhythms and the variations of it.

  4. I liked the prose and I liked the fact (as noted) that we spend time with other characters. I'm generally suspicious of those solipsistic first novels and this isn't that to O'Hara's credit. If we assume Julian English is at least a bit autobiographical, then O'Hara is not totally stuck on him/himself and that impresses. Al Grecco, Caroline, Fliegler! (who's pretty peripheral.) O'Hara crams a lot in, but does it well.

    It would be interesting to see a good book on the relation between literary fiction & Hollywood--I'm sure it exists, though I don't know what it is. Faulkner got a couple of credits on good movies--The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, the movie, is so much better than To Have and Have Not, the book. Fitzgerald, Hammett.

  5. The Modernist side of the book is not just the fragmentation but the loose ends. A Victorian writer would wrap it all up, subplot by subplot.

    O'Hara is about four years younger than Julian English. Some of Julian's childhood must be O'Hara's. The cigarette brands for example, that wonderful list of cigarette brands.

    The Hollywood-literature book I am imagining gives as much or more attention to for example Kubec Glasmon, who I mention because there are at least three Cagney / Blondell movies in his filmography. What was Kubec Glasmon reading that went into his scripts? And who watched his films and stole something for his novel?

    The more fiction form the 1930s I read, the more I wonder.

  6. Modernist, that's what I was missing. I know Modernism in architecture (and a bit in music), but not literature. I've toyed with idea of exploring in (in part because I'm curious what the relationship is between the ideas of Modernism in literature and architecture, if any), but have never actually done so. Perhaps I'll have to do that. More 20s/30s films, too.

  7. So many great books. As Modernism goes, O'Hara is on the light, pop side, like those Paul Whiteman records he likes so much.

    I mean, he's better than Paul Whiteman. Today I'll complain about English's taste in jazz.

    Architecture is often the hardest art to line up with the others. "Modernist" can just mean "whatever is going on during the period now called Modernist." But there are some ideas I can connect. "Use the new materials." Both architects and novelists are doing that.

    1. Somehow not surprised to hear that O'Hara is on the light side of Modernism.

      Yeah, I don't know if the two will line up at all, but when I think Modernist architecture, I'm thinking the theoretical Modernism, building as a machine, form follows function, etc., so I'm thinking there's a shot at some sort of at least tenuous relationship.

    2. I suppose the main similarity is the triumph of "make it new" and a shift toward conceptual art, far more visible in poetry than fiction, but still. "Form follows function" - literature definitely does not pick this one up. Lots of Modernists love ornament.

    3. Good to know...definitely finding myself more interested now in following this thread sooner than later.

  8. Man, that Wikipedia bio of Kubec Glasmon (whom I'd never heard of) reads like something out of a noir novel:

    Kubec was a former pharmacist in Chicago before he became a screenwriter. He wrote crime stories with John Bright. He was married to film actress Joan Blair, born Lilian Wilck. He died at age 40 of a heart attack.

    For that matter, his name sounds like it was made up by a Black Mask writer. I wonder if his pals called him "Cube."

  9. Isn't it wild? I would not mind reading that noir novel.

    Glasmon was a major figure in the professionalization, if that is the right word, of screenwriting.

    Part of my curiosity is that he wrote this chewy, punchy Cagney-ready dialogue, and English was likely his third (or fourth, or fifth) language. There is probably something interesting to learn here.