Tuesday, July 26, 2011

#40 - "Appointment in Samarra" by John O'Hara

A book I knew nothing about, from 1934, made for a quick read this weekend, and a damn good one at that.  Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara is exactly my type of book; focusing on realistic, interesting characters.  As I inch closer to the halfway mark of this list, I'm finally starting to realize what type of books I enjoy reading.

Appointment in Samarra. John O'Hara (Vintage Classics)Set in the fictional Pennsylvania town of Gibbsville, Appointment in Samarra follows the self-destruction of one Julian English, over three days at Christmas, 1930.  A well-to-do man of 30 years, English owns a Cadillac dealership, has a college education, is member of all the best clubs, and is married to Caroline; a woman he loves and a woman that loves him.  But behind the seemingly perfect life, lives a deeply flawed man.

Julian's problems start at a party on Christmas Eve when in a drunken state he throws his drink into the face of Harry Reilly, one of the wealthier men in town, giving him a black eye in the process.  While by no means the beginning of his problems, it does begin a chain reaction that threatens to destroy every part of Julian's life.

I'm always of fan of what I would describe as 'character-driven' novels, where the setting and happenings are almost secondary to the development and growth of the central figures.  In Appointment in Samarra, O'Hara uses some of the frankest and most realistic interactions I've ever read.  Too often I find characters in novels or in movies talk in, well, a scripted fashion.  They use a formality that real people don't use and a wit real people don't have.  This naturally become even more prevalent in older books, where characters must avoid swearing or discussing sexual situations.

I remember hearing or reading that parts of Appointment in Samarra were quite 'racy' for the time, so I was assuming there would be explicit sexual scenes, or profane language.  Of course as usually is the case, there wasn't anything in Appointment in Samarra that you wouldn't see on television today.  While I suppose there would be some minor 'swearing', it certainly wouldn't be anything I'd be hesitant to use in any public setting.  As for sexual scenes, there is nothing explicit, as in Tropic of CancerEverything in Appointment in Samarra is merely suggested, and not any specific sexual acts, merely the fact that adults have sex (who knew!?).

But despite the rather tameness of the sexual scenes or the 'adult situations', the characters still discuss them in a realistic manner.  They talk of sex, as something that everybody does, not as if it's something that doesn't really exist and should never be discussed.  I always have this image of earlier eras, where nobody swears, and nobody talks about anything even remotely private.  This no doubt arises from the fact that in the movies of these by-gone eras, nobody talks about sex, nobody swears, and people are always quite formal.  This is what I found made the dialogue in this book so great.  These are characters that are really just like the people of today.  They talk about sex with their spouse or with the guys, they swear when they're mad, and they talk about other people's tragedies with a touch of humor; happy it hasn't happened to them.  And I'm sure the people of the 30's were no different.  Except for maybe my grandparents, who I simply cannot picture using the word sex, never mind discussing it in any way, shape, or form.

Of course this frank treatment of everyday situations caused quite a stir at the time of publication.  The book has been described as vulgar, infantile, and crass.  Most critics seemed to enjoy the style and story, but were turned off by O'Hara's attempt to push the envelope of what was acceptable for publication at the time.  Ultimately, the book was never banned in the United States, unlike so many others of the time, so I suppose he was successful.  Reading things like this often make me thankful I don't live in an era so prudish that critics can't praise a book they enjoyed, simply because two adults had sex and one person called another a bitch.

You can read the original review in TIME from August 20, 1934, by clicking here.

To listen to my discussion of Appointment in Samarra on The Eyeopener, click here.

For my 41st book, I'm going up a couple of decades to 1961's The Moviegoer by Walker Percy.  Following a New Orleans stockbroker, it's said to combine Bourbon Street elegance with the spiritual urgency of a Russian novel.

1 comment:

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