Posted by: zhiv | July 2, 2013

Appointment in Samarra, John O’Hara

I had a bias, more against the writer than this book, even though I knew the book had to be pretty good. As I wrote about before, I managed to inhale a certain snobbery about O’Hara in my younger days, and it turns out that he was a major league grouch–right up there with his talent and accomplishment–, a classic lout, which didn’t win him any favors. But Samarra, as a text, won me over, and easily at that. It’s a stirring, satisfying read and something of a bellwether, and there are a number of things that one might say about it. There’s no doubt, really, that it belongs on a relatively short list of 20th century American classics. I’m not ready to become a big O’Hara fan, but it’s nice not to be ignorant about him finally, and it would be interesting for me to gauge my enthusiasm for his work next to that of the probably lesser and definitely more obscure John P. Marquand, but this was good stuff.

Its primary note, to a mature male reader 80 years later, is the frank sexuality in the story and the ennui that goes along with it. Somehow it seems right now like alienation is everywhere you look, in Jay Gatsby and Jake Barnes and here, Julian English. It was there in the 19th century masters I suppose, starting with Flaubert and you could quit with Chekhov, but they weren’t like us, not exactly. We don’t really think, at least I never did, that American Literature is all about ennui and doing nothing and alienation and racing towards death. We think it’s about class and social conflict and conquering the wilderness without and within, lighting out for the territory, race and women awakening. Maybe I was confused by all the symbolism, along with the ellipses of modernism, easily hoodwinked then by postmodernism reflecting things I never understood in the first place. Maybe I’m just kinda sorta dense, and I still am.

What’s funny–and I’m careening wildly off the track here, which might not be inappropriate in a post about a novel that’s all about drunkenness and the automobile–is that these days I’m working, or at least thinking about working, on A Moveable Feast, which is an intensely strong contrast to Gatsby in its own way. The topic should be its own post, but the short version is that Gatsby is a study of the clawback that occurs amidst the realization of the American Dream in all its excess. Sun Also Rises is a more direct statement of postwar trauma and alienation, the European charnel house transformed into bacchanalian ritualistic fiesta where nothing means anything. Those books are monstrous, overworked texts, now crawling through a century of academic trench warfare over their meanings. But my own perspective at the moment is the Hemingway memoir, which is about craft and romantic literary idealism, discipline and the search for truth, which may in fact be simply style. The betrayal of the self (and others) is there in the end, and the message might be that the authorial self must betray the integrated romantic self in order to create a masterwork, but the text is so deeply imbued with youth and romance and the simple good life, that you don’t focus on the ending. I guess that’s how I’ve always seen things, more or less, the naive version where Gatsby is about glamour and parties and Nick Carraway’s enchantment, his survival and manageable disillusionment (lighting out for the territory), never for a moment identifying with Gatsby’s violent end, because the heights of Gatsby’s dazzling social success and aplomb always seemed out of reach, just as they were for Nick. The alienation is a lot harder to miss in Sun Also Rises, but it’s muted there in its own ways. Less so, a bit later, in A Farewell to Arms, but I think I might work my way back to that book in just a minute.

What I like about Samarra in this context, and I like it a lot, is that it’s direct and spare and American, taking place on native ground. My guess, thinking this through, is that there’s a lot of Sinclair Lewis in this book, and that’s something I don’t know much about; yet another topic and sidetrack. But Samarra isn’t about success and the glamour of the American Dream: the poison–alcohol–is present from the very beginning. The world is dark and existential, with tough guys and all sorts of angles, and it’s a powerfully sustained exploration of the emptiness of affluence and the will towards self-destruction. Its world is real and perfectly recognizable, and the constant, gathering gloom keeps it from being quaint, which is impressive, 80 years later. It’s the world as it is, still.

Everything is direct. The sexual elements and the male-female relationships are remarkable. Like Sun Also Rises, what was originally sensational becomes, over time but quickly enough, good writing and good literature. O’Hara succeeds by writing what he knew was real, and the truth and power of it overwhelms the sensation. In his time, he gets it both ways, and lands on the map as popular, a bestseller, a young writer with a great career in front of him–except that the anger and loathing revealed in the book suggest his path won’t be easy or perfectly joyful.

While Sun Also Rises is a precursor in terms of sexual frankness, I’m reminded of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps as a work that might have taken some courage or energy from what O’Hara accomplishes here. Maybe, again, my sense of the late 20s/30s mileau has always been naive and ignorant, and I’m only fleshing it out slowly. Some sort of postwar Eisenhower Leave It to Beaver puritanism was deeply instilled in me, which only partially played itself out in the 70s and 80s. Funny how prudery manifests itself as snobbery and shuffles aside a writer like O’Hara, but that’s the way it’s always been in the good old USA I guess, same as it ever was.

A final note on the brilliance of the ending of this book. All of the great American novels have their sturdy symbolism, it seems. An aimless and disaffected child of privilege, a good guy who is part of the town smart set but who can’t quite figure things out, the fact that Julian English is a Cadillac dealer grows on the reader quietly as the story progresses. It’s Christmastime, a series of silent cold and joyless nights unless we choose to pretend otherwise and celebrate human fellowship. Julien is mostly unwound by the time he makes it to the office and starts to think about his business and its challenges, trying to sell Cadillacs as the nation slides deeper into the Great Depression. In his death, O’Hara captures layer upon layer of the poisoned heart of the American Dream in the 20th century. We can think about the automobile and what it has done to our country and our society over the last 80 years, along with its massive death toll, and O’Hara nailed every bit of it. Julian’s suicide by Cadillac and its poison is perfect and powerful, magnificent. It’s death by technology too, speaking to us directly today.

I was thinking about Richard Yates and Revolutionary Road a lot while reading this book, and Yates clearly got as much from O’Hara as McCarthy did, probably more. Maybe more on Yates and O’Hara another time. But the suicides of Julian English and April Wheeler invite comparison, and April’s death is what prompted my mention of A Farewell to Arms earlier. Not sure how I got there, and it’s probably just my current revisitation of Hemingway, but I hadn’t thought of the death of Catherine Barkley in childbirth in a long time, and what it meant for the hero Frederic Henry and his journey. Yates, it seems, updated the trope with the complex self-abortion/suicide of his climax. O’Hara’s ending here is as good and powerful as any of those. It’s stunning.

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