Wednesday, September 30, 2020

He’ll drink anything and you know it - some drinking in Appointment in Samarra, and some jazz - he was screaming with jazz

John O’Hara wrote Appointment in Samarra in 1934, but it is set in 1930.  The main character in 1930 is just about O’Hara’s age in 1934, close enough that they can share childhood details about “the various nights” in Pottsville / Gibbsville, PA, not just Halloween but “Gate Night, when you took people’s gates off the fences” (7, 137) and so on, or this great list of “the cigarettes to be smoked: Ziras, Sweet Caps, Piedmonts, Hassans” (139).

What does O’Hara get out of 1930?  A couple of things.  First, a Big Historical Irony: the Depression is not the Depression yet, as far as people know.  If Julian English knew that all of his high status pals, along with the bankers and brokers, were also going to declare bankruptcy right alongside him, soon enough, he might not be so driven to kill himself.  But he is still thinking the old way.

Second, 1930 is still Prohibition, and boy does O’Hara have fun with that.  “’He’ll drink anything and you know it’” (3.III, 55), and that’s meant positively. The book is full of the logistics of Prohibition, whether in the gangster subplot or in detail about exactly how to “make good gin,” which means you take the prescription “rye” from the pharmacist and

cut it with alcohol and colored water.  It was not poisonous, and it got you tight, which was all that was required of it and all that could be said for it.  (1.II, 11)

The last chapter of English’s life is a magnificent piece of drunkenness.  First, with ten pages left to live, English meets a marvelous new character, Alice Cartwright, the confident twenty-three year-old Gibbsville society columnist.  She allows O’Hara and English to take a last run with Eros before Thanatos takes over.  “He hated her more than anyone ever had hated anyone” (201).  That’s the spirit.

The drinks in the chapter are carefully noted until even English is beyond counting, on my favorite page of the novel, when he 1) “had a smart idea”:

He took the flowers out of a vase and poured the water out, and made himself the biggest highball he ever had seen.  It did not last very long.  (203)

Now he can use “the vase for resting-drinking, and the glass for moving-drinking” (204).  He needs to rest because he sometimes needs to sit still and listen.  Alone at home, abandoned by wife and world, he is playing with his record collection, first spreading them out on the floor “to have them near.”

He played Paul Whiteman’s record of Stairway to Paradise, and when the record came to the “patter” he was screaming with jazz.  The phonograph stopped itself but he was up and changing it to a much later record, Jean Goldkette’s band playing Sunny Disposish. (203, link is to Youtube)

Geez, man, Paul Whiteman, in 1930 you can do better.  Living as we do in the age of miracles, all of the songs O’Hara mentions are easy to find.  Perhaps you should skip the godawful lyrics and vocal of “Sunny Disposish” and jump to 2:00, where Bix Beiderbecke is playing lead and jazz occurs.  That recording is from 1927.  English has been keeping up to some extent.

A lesson of this cruel, tragic scene is to not put your records on the floor when drunk, or perhaps ever:

He wanted to cry but he could not.  He wanted to pick up the pieces.  He reached out to pick them up, and lost his balance and sat down on another record, crushing it unmusically.  He did not want to see what it was.  All he knew was that it was a Brunswick, which meant it was one of the oldest and best. (203-4)

This cruel, painful scene seemed like something new in literature.

Bill Vollmann wrote a good piece in The Baffler, January 2014, that contains a number of good lines, including one about O'Hara's cruelty:

In many respects he is a cruel writer; not only does he portray quotidian cruelty unblinkingly and intimately, but his portrayals themselves can be cruel.

I thought about spending a day on O’Hara’s cruelty.  He occasionally takes sudden, surprising jabs at even the most sympathetic characters.  “Like most cynics, O’Hara wishes things were different,” that’s another good Vollmann line, a line that is itself cruel.

Thanks to Dolce Bellezza for suggesting a readalong for Appointment in Samarra, and thanks to everyone who read along.  It is a good book club book.


  1. And you've outdone yourself in your commentary and made me want to read O'Hara again.

    He hated her more than anyone ever had hated anyone

    What a line! It's the early placement of "ever" that makes it.

  2. The line is even so good on its own, and even funnier in context. How can the prelude to a suicide be comic? It is the new American mode - West, Faulkner. Maybe the idea finally soaked in from Russian literature.

  3. Maybe the jazz selections listed are meant to reflect back on Julian's somewhat 'white bread/man' taste? If he's listening to jazz in 1930 that says one thing. If he's listening to the Hot Fives and Sevens that says something else.

    Alternatively, of course, maybe O'Hara just felt he couldn't mention black artists in a mainstream novel. Brunswick, I see, was the home of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, King Oliver at that point. Maybe mentioning Brunswick is as close as O'Hara feels he can get to mentioning them. Though Wikipedia says they also have Al Jolson, so who knows.

  4. The specifics of the jazz collection do invite interpretation, don't they? I would love to know what record he broke. The narrator could have told me without telling English. C'mon, spill!

  5. The comments, the insight, the comparisons made by you and everyone here are absolutely rich in meaning. I read this novel early in September, being one to jump aboard a project immediately, and now some of the luster had worn off. But, I’m not sure I could ever analyze as well as you or the others. I tend to go for the whole Gestalt, and as you may remember from other conversations we’ve had, I place a lot of importance on characters.

    I was fascinated with Julian’s unplanned actions, and the course they took him on. He seemed to take no thought of the consequences, instead jumping in recklessly to whatever came into his head: throwing a drink, taking a woman out to his car at a party with his wife, in general scorning any sort of decorum (or morality). I wasn’t sure if his impulsive behavior came from youth, being only 30, or stupidity, but I tend to think the later. He lost his grip on any sort of integrity he may have had, in my opinion. Although I don’t think he started with much to begin with.

    In the foreword of my edition, there was some information on O’Hara’s life, He, too, seemed to take a slippery slope with alcohol, with several disastrous results.

    So, is O’Hara pointing to alcohol and Prohibition, or American life in the 30s more generally? I think he gave us a realistic and fascinating picture of middle class America during that time period, which in many ways has not changed from today. Except for the prices.😉

  6. Maybe the jazz selections listed are meant to reflect back on Julian's somewhat 'white bread/man' taste? If he's listening to jazz in 1930 that says one thing. If he's listening to the Hot Fives and Sevens that says something else.

    It would be unlikely for a white person at that time to be listening to Armstrong. We tend to project our more sophisticated tastes back onto earlier periods, but the fact is that it was mostly black people who listened to the great (black) jazz of the '20s and '30s; I don't know anything about O'Hara's taste in music, but I wouldn't be surprised if he liked Whiteman as much as his hero. Most white people did.

  7. The third song mentioned by name in that passage is also by Paul Whiteman. "Lady of the Evening, valuable because it has the fanciest trick ending ever put on a record," to which I say, listening to it, eh, but I would bet $3 (2020 dollars) that O'Hara is giving English his own opinion.

    Research has ruled out Ellington as the mystery Brunswick, since it is "one of the oldest" and Ellington only recorded with Brunswick in the last half of the 1920s. Then I stopped researching this narrow but all-too-interesting subject.

    As for characters, Meredith, what else did I write about? I even gave a paragraph to the amazing Lydia Faunce Browne, talk about a character.

    As for English, his impulsive behavior comes from his subconscious, and occasionally conscious, desire to kill himself before the external disaster ruins him in a week. The specific woman he took to his car, for example, invited a specific form of suicide.

    Why do you think English is stupid? He seemed like a pretty sharp cat to me.

    O'Hara's own slope with alcohol does not look that slippery to me, or that steep. He abused alcohol regularly and with great success for almost fifty years.

    I would not want to generalize about middle class America in the 1930s from this book. America was a big place. "Middle class" was a big place.

    1. Well, the other things I saw discussed in this series of posts included style, jazz, the way O’Hara digresses, comparing his work to other authors of the 30s...much of which didn’t occur to me, necessarily, except for I saw some resemblance to Fitzgerald. I’m certainly not an expert in literary analysis; I like considering the characters’ motives and personalities.

      Are you saying English’s desire to kill himself was there before he novel started? I saw it more as a result of a spiral he could not escape, initiated with his first impulsive action of throwing the drink.

      I think he’s stupid because who throws away his life like that? Who tears it apart in the space of a fortnight...a beautiful wife, a lovely home, parents who love him, a good job. I thought he was stupid to make the choices he did, even if they were to some extent subconscious.

      And yes, O’Hara abused alcohol. Clearly he knew what he was writing about when he described English’s drinking. It seemed a steep slope to me when they both slid down it unable, or unwilling, to stop themselves.

      Perhaps I should have said middle class in the Midwest, specifically. I can see lots of my town in Illinois described in the small town of Pennsylvania where the novel was set. Lots of interest in appearance, and parties, and being financially successful as if those things were what matter most.

      As usual, I find myself wishing I could talk with you face to face, instead of within the limited confines of my keyboard and your screen. You always bring to light aspects of a piece of literature I had not thought about; I hope that I was able to convey my thoughts to you. It is great fun to read together, and this book was an important piece to add to my repertoire of American literature.

    2. Yes, before the novel started. The reader does not get the explanation until 2/3s in - the accounting, the gun in the mouth - but English knew, before the novel started, that he had borrowed $300,00 from Harry Reilly, and that that money was gone and never coming back, and that there was no more money to come. So the death-drive gets to work, beginning with that thrown drink, which was not thrown at a random target.

      What's conscious and what's subconscious, that is ambiguous. But there are strong material conditions, so to speak, for that spiral.

      We are early on in the great American tradition - Updike Bellow Roth on to, say, Richard Russo, of smart men doing stupid things.

      Yes, it would be enjoyable to chat face to face, although I will warn you that, if we are discussing the book, I am exactly the same in real life.

      If you ever want to move a ways west to a Midwestern town that is not at all like what you are describing, let me know. I live in it.

    3. As I think about it, the other place I have lived in the Midwest that was not like you described was Chicago. Although I did become quite adept at throwing parties. We had several quite good parties every year by the end.

    4. Your reminder of him borrowing the money from Harry, and knowing he could never pay it back, makes complete sense as the beginning of his self-induced demise. Somehow, I didn’t see it as quite so fatal and thought he could fix it rather than crash.

      And, if we were face to face, I wouldn’t expect you to be any other than you are here. ;) I would just like the opportunity to share ideas more quickly than all this silly typing, waiting, reading, typing...

      Parties. Well, I am the kind of person who likes quiet ones. As a child of five, I invited one guest. One. And there we were, at the end of a long, long table in my parent’s dining room having a wonderful time.

    5. Trollope, to pick a relevant Victorian example, would have told us about English's debt and relationship with Reilly right away, within the first couple of pages. O'Hara is a bit of a Modernist, rearranging time, delaying information, and working with a more Freudian idea of the subconscious. Or maybe he grew up on detective novels, and likes it that motives are mysteries.

      You are invited to our annual Christmas cookie party. Well, not annual this year, I guess. Oh well.

    6. See? This is one of the reasons I like reading with you: you point out what I have missed...or, misinterpreted.

  8. It has just occurred to me that each of English's three attacks are on people who might lend him more money and postpone disaster. So he's making sure there's no chance of salvation that way.

  9. The drinking, the jazz, the cruelty--maybe I want to read this otherwise predictable novel (?) after all!

  10. That's right. Especially in the last third or so, the details of the move towards the crash begin to provide a lot of surprises.