What's it like to encounter the author John O'Hara and arguably his finest book, Appointment in Samarra, for the first time? Ray Chellel, who retired as British 'public' school teacher in classical literature several years ago, had just that encounter. Chellel was born in Barrington, Rhode Island, graduated from New York University, and sped soon after in the 1960s to London. He's been in the UK ever since, now living in Kent. He remembers Barrington, at the time a 'dry' town, as something like a Gibbsville. 'Booze was banned, but everybody drank like fish.' He recently sent this appraisal to The PJ.
Samarra really is a tour de force, and hard to believe that it was his first novel. I love the clear, sharp prose, and the microcosmic snapshot of 1930 America which Gibbsville, with its snobbery, racism, sexual predation, hypocrisy, and its pervasive criminality that was intensified, if not created, by Prohibition.
Gibbsville is certainly not 'Our Town.' The book reminds a little (but only a little) of Fitzgerald. But much more cynical, without FSF's lyricism or stubborn belief in the luminous beauty and just-out-reach possibilities represented by the Green Light at the end of Daisy's dock. From my scant knowledge of American literature, maybe Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road is a better comparison -- although he is commenting on the 1950s.
O'Hara's writing is so fresh, even the dialogue -- all that late 20s slightly Runyon-esque lingo -- which never sounds contrived and is always red-blooded and effortlessly tough, genuine. I also love the subtlety with JO'H shifts narrative perspective so that we get an insight into each character's mind as the idiom of the writing is coloured by the thoughts of that character. So skillful!
And SEX -- which must have given Mrs. Grundy a heart attack in 1934.
And the CARS -- in important ways inseparable from the sex. (Is this the first novel in which characters have sex in automobiles?) Gibbsville is car-based society where your status -- and hence your shaggability -- largely depend on the car you drive, just as it was in my young days in Barrington. 'Four-Wheel Appeal' was the phrase. JO'H is very particular in invoking the names: Cadillac V-61, Franklin, LaSalle, Stutz-Bearcat, REO Speedwagon.
And the boozing! These people drink like teenagers -- well, British teenagers anyway. There is much about Gibbsville that reminds me of Barrington, wherein the Rhode Island Country Club refused admission to Jews and Italians right up to the end of the 60s -- except in the latter case as servants -- no matter how rich they were.