Tragedy Of Manners

Thursday, April 21, 2005

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Literary reputation and popular taste usually have nothing in common beyond mutual contempt, but in the matter of John O'Hara they are in firm agreement: Once respected by critics for his tart short stories and early novels, beloved by the mass readership for his blockbuster novels of the 1950s and 1960s, O'Hara is now scorned by the literary establishment and pretty much forgotten by readers, except older ones who remember his heyday.

In all American literary history, no writer comes to mind who fell so far and so fast. Ernest Hemingway's reputation has tumbled, perhaps somewhat unfairly since much of the criticism is directed at books published posthumously without his authorization, and in any event readers still flock to "The Old Man and the Sea" (alas), and the early short stories are still widely assigned in literature courses. O'Hara, by contrast, is toast. Yes, that panel of alleged experts who drew up the Modern Library's list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century put his "Appointment in Samarra" in the 22nd spot, but O'Hara's literary standing is lower now than at any point during his life.

Is this deserved? Apparently a number of readers think not, since in the past couple of years I've received many e-mails from people who think O'Hara merits a second reading and who usually cite "Appointment in Samarra" as the book of his that they most admire. Other evidence in their messages suggests that these readers are mostly in their sixties or older, people who read O'Hara's novels and stories as he churned them out from his study in Princeton and who remember them with affection in part, no doubt, on merit but also, I suspect, as tokens of their youth.

Me, too. From the early 1950s to the late 1960s, from my early teens to my late twenties, I read everything O'Hara wrote. My copy of "Appointment in Samarra" is the 1953 Modern Library edition, and I probably read it as soon as I got it, perhaps as a Christmas present from my father, an ardent O'Hara fan. I loved O'Hara for his keen sense of social caste in a country that claims to have no such thing, for his unsparing depiction of manners and mores, and -- especially in his bloated later novels -- his apparent determination to have a graphic sex scene on every other page.

He was a strange, unpleasant man. Born in 1905 in the Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Pottsville, he was the doctor's son, with all the respect and prominence that entailed. But after his father's early death O'Hara could not afford to go to college -- he wanted to go to Yale more than any pious believer has ever wanted to go to Heaven -- and the chip on his shoulder lasted a lifetime. He worked as a journalist in Pennsylvania and New York, picking up along the way a comprehensive knowledge of various seedy types, from mobsters to showgirls to society matrons, and he acquired a grasp of social stratification that is the bedrock upon which he constructed "Appointment in Samarra."

The book caused a sensation when it was published in 1934 and became an immediate bestseller, as did "Butterfield 8," published the next year. O'Hara was off and running, with stories appearing regularly in the New Yorker and books selling zillions of copies. "Pal Joey" (1940) was made into a musical comedy, with a masterful score and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. O'Hara set himself up in Princeton, hobnobbed with the rich, lobbied shamelessly for literary awards and club memberships, togged himself out in expensive tweeds, riding boots and other accouterments of the country squire manque, insulted just about everybody, including many who thought he liked them, and in general made himself thoroughly obnoxious. By the 1960s his novels were flabby and perfunctory -- try, if you can bear it, "The Instrument" (1967) or "Lovey Childs" (1970) -- and by his death in 1970 the downward rush of his reputation was well underway.

What's left of that reputation now rests on "Samarra," "Butterfield" and a few of the stories; his "Selected Short Stories" are available in a Modern Library edition, and some of them hold up quite well. It is easy to see why his early work got so much attention, for he dealt candidly with matters -- social class and rivalries, sex, ambition and ethnicity -- that other novelists merely danced around. His chief influences in writing "Samarra," he says in his introduction to the 1953 Modern Library edition, were Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis, and he acknowledged Hemingway, Dorothy Parker and Ring Lardner as influences on his short stories. All of which is to say that he was interested in the warp and woof of American society, that he was a novelist of manners, and that his prose was lean while in dialogue he, like Lardner, "wrote down speech as it is spoken truly," which was still something of a novelty in the 1930s.

"Appointment in Samarra" is the story of a few days in the life of Julian English. He lives in a Pennsylvania coal town (population "less than 25,000") that O'Hara chose to call Gibbsville -- Pottsville, very thinly described -- and where he set much of his subsequent fiction. He is 30 years old, the son of the town doctor, an aloof, correct man who is haunted by his father's business embarrassment and suicide. Julian is married to the former Caroline Walker, beautiful and passionate. Both are members of "the Lantenengo Street crowd," the town's social elite. Julian runs the town's Cadillac dealership and belongs to the Lantenengo Country Club, where he regularly drinks himself under the table.

Shortly after the novel opens, Julian, drunk as usual, does something incredibly stupid: He tosses a highball in the face of Harry Reilly, "a terrible person, a climber, a nouveau riche," but also "a bad man to have as an enemy," not least because Julian owes him $20,000, about $200,000 in 2005 dollars. Within minutes of the highball toss, as Caroline angrily tells Julian, "the whole town knows what you did, and when Harry realizes that, he'll do anything short of murder to get even with you."

The "whole town" isn't just Lantenengo Street and the country club, it's also the Stage Coach, a roadhouse outside Gibbsville where the lower orders -- "the Christiana Street kind of people" -- go to tie one on. These include Lute Fliegler, a nice guy who works for Julian and his wife, Irma; Ed Charney, the local mobster, "the big shot from here to Reading and here to Wilkes-Barre"; Al Grecco, "a minor member of the mob" who carries Charney's water; Helene Holman, Charney's mistress; and occasionally Julian English and others from Lantenengo Street, out for an evening's slumming.

Everybody gets along just fine. Al Grecco, who delivers Charney's bootleg booze to Julian's house, regards his client as "the kind of guy that was a high class guy and would be a high class guy in any crowd. You could tell by looking at him he was a high class guy. And he always spoke to the boys on the street." Julian plays Grecco along, treats Lute Fliegler decently and, after the highball fiasco, desperately tries to get back in Harry Reilly's good graces.

It doesn't happen. It can't. Julian is on a downward spiral he can neither halt nor reverse. The reader watches in something approximating horror as he self-destructs. One evening at the Stage Coach, Helene Holman comes on to him -- in full view of Julian's wife -- and he goes outside with her long enough to cause suspicion and rumor. Caroline, in a three-page interior monologue, says:

"And so what you did, what you did was take a knife and cut me open from my throat down to here, and then you opened the door and let in a blast of freezing cold air, right where you had cut me open, and till the day you die I hope you never, never know what it feels like to have someone cut you open all the way down the front of you and let the freezing blast of air inside you."

Julian's death -- his suicide by carbon monoxide in his closed garage -- is inevitable. The alternative would be eternal humiliation in a town too small to forget, by contrast with which a painless, booze-besotted death in the front seat of a Cadillac is a mercy killing. Despite everything, Caroline still loves him and mourns him inconsolably, but Julian's behavior has put an end to their marriage. His father's icy disdain would have been unbearable. Even though Ed Charney blames Al Grecco -- whom he'd ordered to keep a close eye on Helene -- rather than Julian for whatever happened outside the Stage Coach that night, he surely would take the mob's auto purchases to another dealer and so, for that matter, would just about everyone else in Gibbsville. Julian is dead before he dies.

O'Hara took his title from a wonderful old Arab tale, a version of which he found in a play called "Sheppey," by Somerset Maugham. A servant is jostled in a crowd in Baghdad, "and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me." He tells his master, "I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me." The merchant goes to the marketplace and sees Death. "Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?" Death replies: "That was not a threatening gesture, . . . it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."

It is a wise tale, and O'Hara puts a deft American twist on it. Still, the novel does not hold up so well as one might wish. What seemed daring seven decades ago seems dated now, especially the brand names (many of them long out of business) that O'Hara used as points of reference. He reached for irony but rarely rose above sarcasm. "Appointment in Samarra" indeed has its pleasures, but if it is the best of O'Hara's books -- as probably it is -- then his life's achievement, though massive in size, was limited in art and craft.

"Appointment in Samarra" is available in a Vintage Classics paperback ($13).

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