I found John O’Hara through Caustic Cover Critic who did an interview with Tomer Hanuka about some of his covers including the ones he’d done for the vintage reissues of O’Hara’s ‘Appointment in Samarra’ and ‘Butterfield 8’. The covers looked great and the reviews on amazon sounded intriguing so it went on my Christmas list and was kindly donated by my lovely mother, by which time I’d kind of lost interest. However it’s a shortish book and that suits lunch times so I picked it up again last week and ended up being blown away by it.
This is the first time I’d heard of O’Hara and the more I find out about him the more I’m surprised about that (also disappointed that I’ve missed out for so long, and that none of my local bookshops stock either of the recently reissued vintage titles) because he seems so much the sort of writer that I would know about – a friend of Dorothy Parker damn it. First published in 1934 ‘Appointment In Samarra’ charts the fate of Julian English from tipping point to final fall – all taking place over a single Christmas weekend.
I’ve been wondering how to write this without giving away chunks of plot – I don’t think I can – so there will be spoilers. Mr and Mrs Julian English are leaders of the young married social set in their home town of Gibbsville Pennsylvania, outwardly they appear affluent, happy, popular, successful; the perfect couple, inwardly it’s clearly been falling apart for a while before Julian gets drunk and throws a drink in the face of an influential business colleague. From there on things literally fall apart; the fractures in the English marriage widen past repair, Julian’s drinking is revealed to its full extent as is the state of his finances. Caroline English is revealed as a loving but difficult wife – one who leaves her husband unsure of himself and her. Julian compounds one foolish action with another and within forty eight hours the marriage is in tatters – he’s stayed drunk, gotten into fights which will destroy his business, been seen to leave a bar with the local gangsters mistress, and finally takes his own life.
It could be very depressing, and at times it is, but what made this book for me was the way O’Hara looked beyond what was happening to his immediate protagonists and took time to examine what the repercussions of Julian’s actions are on those around him; characters whose lives are peripheral to the English’s but which will overlap in potentially catastrophic ways. Like his contemporary Fitzgerald, O’Hara exposes the tarnish on the American Dream but I warmed to Julian and Caroline more than I ever have any Fitzgerald character. They may be flawed and weak, but they’re also human and recognisable as are the pressures they face. I also found this book a neat contrast with McCarthy’s ‘The Group’ – both are set in the same time period – although McCarthy was looking back and O’Hara is writing what he sees around him – and both deal with many of the same issue’s – careers for wealthy young women, sex out of wedlock, marriage, contraception; it’s all in here.
The other thing that O’Hara reveals, and I have no idea how deliberate this is, is the casual and bitter racism prevalent in small town 30’s America. An absolute hatred of Jews, the divide between wasp’s and Catholics at the higher end of the social scale, attitudes towards Greeks, poles, and Italians – everything in the cultural melting pot bubbles up to the top. I can’t imagine anything post war could be as openly and casually anti Semitic and I find it fascinating to read; it’s a shock to my pc eyes, but to forget that these attitudes existed - where accepted as normal – is surely almost as bad as still quietly holding onto them.
I loved this book, can’t recommend it highly enough, and will be looking out for more O’Hara – first 'Butterfield 8' and then anything I can find second hand.