Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara


Appointment in Samarra (1934) as a first book at 29 has in it more than the promise to abolish the sneer on the face of those WASP college-men that patronise me. Slights to a short arsed Irishman are magnified into cosmic drama but this book got away on O’Hara. Edmund 'Bunny’ Wilson was one of those types that went to Princeton with Fitzgerald given a clip by O’Hara. And while I’m on about it, what’s this about him assaulting a midget outside 21? He was only just over 5' himself and those guys have a low centre of gravity and can be quite difficult to knock down. Terrific upper body strength too.

Anyways Caroline the wife of our preppie hero Julian English went out with:

. Joe Montgomery could be classified under many headings. Drunk. Snake. Rich boy. Well-dressed man. Debbies’ delight. Roué. Bond salesman. War veteran. Extra man. And so on. They all added up to the same thing. His chief claim to distinction was that he had known Scott Fitzgerald at Princeton, and that made him in Caroline’s eyes an ambassador from an interesting country, full of interesting people whom she wanted to meet and to see in action. She did not know, of course, that she was a member in good standing of the community which she thought Joe Montgomery represented, which Fitzgerald wrote about.

I said that this book got away on O’Hara and became bigger than the clip it was to deliver and I was about to say that Wilson was wrong in his assessment of too much focus on peripheral characters. Now Julian English is not a Star of India or a Koh-i-Noor so to set him off he needs lesser gems. A Grundrisse analysis would say that anthracite is setting enough and certainly O’Hara gives those hewers of wealth the Irish, Welsh, Cornish and Polish miners their due but leaves them in the underground. To offer a facile opposition 'the underworld’ plays a greater role in Appointment. Booze had to be sourced in those far-off days of Prohibition when as someone remarked ‘inebriety was a national pastime’. Ed Charney comes into it, he’s the bootlegger. Al Greco is there too as the all-purpose hood, delivery boy and minder of Ed’s mistress. There are others and for a slim book it has a large population and is like a suitcase that is getting overfull. You have the sense that maybe he had to sit on it to fasten the catches. But never mind like the novels of Wodehouse which hover eternally over a single warm summer in the 1930‘s, O’Hara likes to revisit and revise. In a novella Imagine Kissing Pete he makes a glancing mention of Julian English’s throwing a drink in Harry Reilly’s face. Jim Malloy as O’Hara’s alter ego is telling that story and he remarks how it seemed just a trivial spat.

But it wasn’t because the lump of ice hit Reilly under the eye and blackened it. You can’t be giving a man a black eye and not expect war. Particularly a man to whom you owe a lot of money. The mind of the gentleman lush is well drawn by someone who was a tricky drunk himself. The interior monologue captures that blend of drunken paranoia and testing the gods by an act of folly - yes I will swim way out past my normal length and if can make it back the universe may be quits with me and the slate will be clean. But out on that ocean is a lonely place and there is little patience with yet another fine mess.

Julian English the protagonist of Appointment is the cynosure of all the young marrieds who were born into Lantenengo Street. He is generally reckoned to be a good sort with a stylish way of handling a cigarette, a drink, a car and a woman as they come into his purview. Everyone seems in thrall to his charm, the bootleggers like him - he’s not stuck up like the rest of them on that street. Yet he’s no longer quite as young as he was and his Cadillac dealership of which he is the front man and the emblem of sophistication, a hood ornament, is faltering. This is 1930 and corrections to the market have been occurring after a general outbreak of irrational exuberance. Nobody holds a grudge like the Irish particularly when your name is English and the undertaker Pat Quilty who seemed to be ready to pay cash is looking at a rival offer. Sorry for your trouble, Ju.

This is part of the American canon, even Hemingway admitted as much.
"If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra."

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