Fran Lebowitz has called him “the real F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Ernest Hemingway said he was “a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well.”
But mention John O’Hara today — 43 years after his death at age 65 — and you’re likely to draw a look as blank as an unwritten book. Why? In part, perhaps, it’s a matter of personality: O’Hara was, by all accounts, difficult to get along with, a social climber, a bully, a vicious drunk.
And yet, he also wrote three of the finest novels of the 1930s — “Appointment in Samarra,” “BUtterfield 8” and the woefully under-recognized “Hope of Heaven” — as well as dozens of short stories that are exemplars of the form.
At his best, he was as acute a social observer as Fitzgerald, as spare a stylist as Hemingway, and in his creation of Gibbsville, in western Pennsylvania (modeled on his hometown Pottsville), he invented a kind of small-bore variation on Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional landscape that was both specific enough and broad enough to encompass the full range of his literary concerns.
As for what these concerns are, O’Hara’s debut novel, “Appointment in Samarra” (Penguin: 220 pp., $16.95 paper), offers something of a primer, a tale of social success and social failure observed in precise miniature. Originally published in 1934, it has just been reissued (between covers as well as digitally) as the first in a series of O’Hara reprints from Penguin Classics; “BUtterfield 8” and a collection of the author’s New York stories will follow later in the year.
The title comes from a fable about a man who, after surprising Death in a Baghdad market, escapes to Samarra only to find that Death has an appointment with him there. The irony, and inevitability, of that interaction also infuses O’Hara’s novel, which unfolds over two days during Christmas 1930 and involves a Gibbsville socialite named Julian English: a man caught in a death spiral of alcoholism and bad behavior, as he loses everything he has ever held dear.
“He didn’t want to go back and make a more definite break with Caroline,” O’Hara writes of Julian late in the novel. “He didn’t want to go back to anything, and he went from that to wondering what he wanted to do. Thirty years old. … He had a drink. He had another and he got up and took off his coat and vest and tie.”
The genius of the book is in its rendering of these small details, the way Julian’s unraveling takes place in increments, each irrevocable but also, somehow, conscious, a sequence of bad decisions that leave him nowhere to turn.
Along the way, O’Hara traces the dynamics of an insular Pennsylvania community, in which class (and race and religion) are essential determinants of not just status but also daily life. After Julian throws a drink in the face of Harry Reilly, a wealthy Irish Catholic, his business — he runs the local Cadillac dealership — begins to suffer, with other Catholic clients backing away.
At the same time, there’s a loose fluidity, a sense of classes if not blending then in some sense mixing, as they must in a place this small.
“In a town the size of Gibbsville,” O’Hara writes, “— 24,032, estimated 1930 census — the children of the rich live within two or three squares of the children of parents who are not rich, not even by Gibbsville standards. This makes for a spurious democracy, especially among boys, which may or may not be better than no democracy at all.”
O’Hara gets at all of it: the tragedy of Julian’s disintegration, the burden (like a straightjacket) of money and class. But most of all, he gets at the lostness of a life adrift, of a character with everything, who doesn’t know, or appreciate, what he is throwing away.
It’s not exactly accurate to call “Appointment in Samarra” a love story, although a great love — Julian’s love for his wife Caroline and her love for him — does reside at its center, or more to the point, a great love gone wrong. Rather, among the arguments O’Hara means to make here is that love isn’t necessarily enough, even a love such as this, which he makes explicit in a brief passage written from Caroline’s point-of-view.
This is a departure; the rest of the book is a third person narrative. And yet, in bringing us directly into Caroline’s consciousness, O’Hara opens the novel in an unexpected way. “I love you?” she reflects. “Yes, I love you. Like saying I have cancer.” And then: “I hope you die. … I hope you die because you have killed something fine in me.”
Here, in just a couple of brief sentences, O’Hara cuts to the heart of their relationship, the despair of a love that can’t sustain itself, but also can’t let go.
Still, if this means there is little redemption in “Appointment in Samarra,” then it’s also the case that O’Hara’s novel offers something far more searing: an unsentimental portrait of a character who has run out of chances, who, for all his wealth and privilege, is left, in the end, with nothing but the emptiness of his own heart.