Monday, September 28, 2020

So far nothing terrible had occurred - John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra


Dolce Bellezza suggested a readalong of John O’Hara’s first novel, Appointment in Samarra (1934), and although I did not do much to promote it, I did get the book read, as did several other people, so here we go.

Julian English owns a Cadillac dealership in a small coal city in Pennsylvania.  He has a rough three days, December 24 through December 26, 1930.  December 1930 was a bad time to be in the business of selling Cadillacs, or much of anything except alcohol.  That “appointment” in the title, pinched from a Somerset Maugham parable, that’s with death.

When Bellezza and I were discussing the readalong, I noticed that all of the covers prominently featured an automobile.  I did not know much about the story, but I took all those cars as a clue.  “So far nothing terrible had occurred” (1.II, 10) but I’m afraid that’s only six pages into the novel.

In June 1930, English borrowed twenty thousand dollars from a jolly Irish raconteur.  In this novel, packed with money and prices, are we ever going to need the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator:

So, when I get a passage like this (it’s Christmas; the novel is full of parties), I am ready:

“They have a cover charge of a dollar and a half or two dollars, and there goes twenty bucks already, not including ginger ale and White Rock, and sandwiches!  You know what they charge for a plain ordinary chicken sandwich at the Stage Coach?  A buck.”  (2.ii, 32)

That’s thirty dollars to get in the door and sixteen dollars for the “plain ordinary” (a nice taste of O’Hara’s touch with speech, there).  Even in small-town Depression-era Pennsylvania, nightclub prices are a rip-off.

Converting, then, English has borrowed the current equivalent of $320,000 for his business, and six months later, that money is gone.  “The other ten thousand had gone for expenses, real ones, like payments on notes, payroll, and so on” (7, 159).  The phrase “real ones” tells you what you need to know about the first ten thousand, although there is a long paragraph with the details of English’s impulsive squandering.  Now it’s the end of the month and he won’t be able to make payroll.  A few pages later he locks himself in the bathroom and “put the barrel in his mouth,” but there are fifty pages left in the novel and anyways we know that it’s a car that will kill him, presumably a Cadillac, not a gun.

O’Hara, in Samarra, is an anatomist of social status, not exactly class but a complex combination of wealth, income, profession, marriage, residence, club membership, party-giving, ancestry, religion, education, wartime service, and public behavior.  English is about to suffer a severe loss of the first three, at least.  The story of the novel, or his story in it, is his succession of self-destructive public behavior, beginning with throwing a drink, unprovoked, in the face of the man who lent him all that money.  It is like he is getting ahead of the disaster.  Before society or the economy or whatever other outside forces destroy him, he will destroy himself.

The question, then, or the real story, is to what extent English’s self-destruction is conscious or subconscious, to what extent, moment by moment, he realizes what he is doing and where he is heading.  The form of the novel is good for this kind of story.  Outside forces versus inside; sociology versus, or mixed with, psychology. 

The psychology, and for that matter the sociology, might be a bit received.  English, especially at the end, seems to be literalizing Freud’s death-drive.  I wondered about this as I read, but I am always a skeptic about the depth of the thinking of novelists, against their perception and style, where they do such wonderful things sometimes.

I guess I’ll stop here and spend some time with O’Hara’s style tomorrow.

Page numbers are form the 2013 Penguin Deluxe edition.  Dee-luxe.


  1. I hadn't thought to look up the inflation rates, but phew, those prices feel extortionate! (Too pricey for me!)

    I hadn't thought of Julian's self-destruction as conscious. Certainly, when I realized how much money trouble he was in, it became apparent that there was more going on than simply breaking a social taboo, but I hadn't considered that perhaps the reason he broke it was more deliberate than it seemed from the immediate context. It's an interesting thought, one I'll have to mull over some.

  2. Right, when Lute is complaining about those prices, he is not just being cheap.

    I was unsure about Julian's volition until he put a gun in his mouth. Then I knew, all right, some of this is conscious. But how much? Exactly what, and when? Good question. We watch Julian struggle with himself.

  3. O'Hara strikes me as definitely a good example shallow thinking about psychology, but very astute observation about class, language, style. I still find the fact that English' psychology at the center is such a cipher to be a bit of a flaw, but it's pretty clear O'Hara is playing to his strengths by avoiding those psychological cruces--we don't see Julian decide to throw the drink, etc.

    Useful to see the calculator. I knew we were talking about real money, but I hadn't realized quite how much.

  4. I enjoyed your pairing of a folksy discussion tone with a Marxist reading here. Pretty cagey of you! Although I should probably wait for your style post first, I'm curious where you'd rank O'Hara or at least this novel alongside the 1930s U.S. competition. First tier, second tier or what?

  5. i've imagined that books are so difficult to write -keeping everything together and coherent - that it's miraculous when authors are able to actually convey subliminal information... in this case, i wonder if the developing DEPRESSION is one of the drivers of the action/psychology...

  6. One line O'Hara takes on English is that he is repeating the mistakes, and the fate, of his grandfather - in other words, Naturalism, which is what I meant by received sociology. But I am not sure how seriously I am meant to take that, except that it makes Dr. English more interesting. More tragic. But as an idea, it is pretty shallow.

    Bill Vollmann published a good piece on O'Hara in The Baffler several years ago, and one of its many good lines is that "in method, if certainly not in ideology, he [O'Hara] resembles a Marxist." I think that's right.

    As for tiers, second tier - he's up against Faulkner, right - although within American literature, definitely not internationally, he may be almost as influential as Faulkner. The whole Updike-Cheever-Yates-etc. crowd, here they come.

    In contemporary terms, English is suffering from depression exacerbated by severe alcohol abuse. No question. To extend what we discussed on Reese's blog, this may make him less of a tragedy and more of a case study.

  7. The Samarra story is from the 1001 Nights, though I imagine pre-exists that too. I've no doubt WSM did a version. There's another version by Jean Cocteau, I seem to remember, in Alberto Manguel's Black Water anthology.

    I read this O'Hara book once but remember nothing about it, even after reading your review.

  8. Right, the Samarra story, in one of its many versions, is much older than 1001 Nights. Maugham's retelling is from a play I'd not heard of.

    I can see how this novel would cause memory problems. All of that booze. There could be secondary psychosomatic blackouts. I hope I remember the scene where our hero gets drunk and plays with his record collection, with tragic results. I'll write about that.

  9. There is the grandfather as example, but again that didn't strike me as having much substance behind it: more on the lines of 'skips a generation' than any systematic thought. We of course think there's the depressive gene in the family.

    Very much looking forward to your thoughts on style: that's where I think O'Hara is interesting. If Updike was influenced by O'Hara--and, oh, is he!--why didn't he study O'Hara's swiftness and reserve?

    Off to read the article in The Baffler...

  10. Right, we agree on the grandfather. Novelists fill their novels with semi-digested ideas they pull from the magazines they have been reading.

    I do not know Updike well. I just looked at "A&P," though - he did learn O'Hara's swiftness. That's a zippy story, line by line. I am not sure what "reserve" means here.

    1. I don't know Updike that well, really, there's a lot & I'm just blithely trumpeting my ignorance. I glanced at the opening of A&P & I don't think I've read it for instance. Nevertheless...

      In terms of swiftness, I'm thinking of things like Updike's long descriptions of golf shots: they feel accurate, they're well-composed, and they bore me. Updike is such a good observer, he can't help observing. I just sometimes wish he observed a little less...real human beings just don't observe that much. There's plenty of plot in Appointment & I like that.

      Though O'Hara has that description of anthracite coal country, which was cited in the Baffler article, too, and Vollman approved of it. I remember reading that and thinking, this is interesting enough, but except for that, probably unnecessary.

    2. Ah, I see. I do not have such a rule. The reverse, if anything. You want to write a novel consisting mostly of descriptions of vegetables and the songs sung by cheeses? Please do. I think artists should do what is best for their art. Do what you're good at.

      Vollmann probably wondered why the line about unions and different kinds of coal was not extended to twenty pages, or fifty. You've seen Vollmann's books? They are not 1,300 pages long because of all the plot.

    3. I have only seen Vollman's books from the outside. Someday, maybe, when I have a lot of time on my hands...

      Novelists should do what they're best at, of course, but there's also the question of why do I read novels? [Insert long list of reasons here...I'm going to Outer Zambonia next week, here's a Zambonian novel!] But I like plot, too many mysteries in my youth probably, but I also think that character is best revealed by plot, and getting inside character is one of things that not much else can do but narratives of one sort or another, primarily novels.

      If I'm going to make a sweeping generalization--and of course I am, I'm wearing my blogging hat--contemporary 'good' fiction forgoes story and plot way more than it should.

      So let that singing cheese tell a good story and I'm there!

    4. The singing cheeses do not, honestly, tell much of a story. They exist for their own sake, Zola's pleasure in putting them into language.

      Novels do things besides getting inside characters. Novels do many things. Some aspire to the condition of music, for example.

      But, I have to say, I don't care what anybody, including myself, likes. I'm trying to understand what artists do, what a work of art is. "Liking" always seems to take care of itself.

  11. I read this O'Hara book once but remember nothing about it, even after reading your review.

    Same here! I remember enjoying it and thinking he was a hell of a writer, but I've never read primarily for plot (*exchanges Seekrit Handshake with Tom*) and this one certainly didn't sink in. Bring on the cheeses!

  12. I assume the jittery, digressive storytelling is hard on the memory. One remembers that there was a lot, but a lot of what?

  13. I've never read O'Hara, so I don't have anything interesting to add to the debate.
    I enjoyed your post and thanks for the useful CPI inflation calculator. I'll mark it up.
    I should try to find one for francs => euros. I'd be useful to read Balzac.

  14. Inflation calculators and currency converters are so useful for certain books. This is one of them.

    I think you'd like Appointment. It has something in common with some of the other American literature you have enjoyed, and it is all so snappy. It would be a good book club book.

  15. This book is great. "December 1930 was a bad time to be in the business of selling Cadillacs" There's an excellent article on how automobiles play a role in this novel I read earlier this year:

  16. Thanks for the link. All the cars, that was a novelty.