Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

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Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Thursday, April 23, 2009

John O'Hara - APPOINTMENT IN SAMAARA AND BUTTERFIELD 8

O’Hara’s a big deal, and there’s no way I can handle him in one post. Well, I could, but it’d be a monster post.

So, we’re gonna break him into threes. Part one is this, his two more critically acclaimed books. The second part will be the big novels like A RAGE TO LIVE; part three will be the short stories. Though I might switch that around. If I’m so inclined.

These two novels are the ones the critics usually chat up, particularly APPOINTMENT. But oddly they’re also the forgotten stepchildren of O’Hara’s oeuvre – the critics want to talk about the short stories, the hoi polloi wanted to read the big potboilers. Yet oddly, too, they’re the easiest books of O’Hara’s to find nowadays, both of ‘em are still in print. The short stories are not so easily available and trust me, you got to hunt around to find the once-bestsellers.

You know why they’re so easy to find? They’re small! Easy to fit on the shelf!

Well, I don’t know that, but I betcha.

APPOINTMENT was the first O’Hara I read and while it has its pleasures, it has all the self-conscious faults of first time literary novels of this era. Its reputation is definitely overrated, and again I’m annoyed by the late John Updike, who more and more seems to me to be the bland consensus voice of Approval that modern American society seems to need in its culture. Do you want to know what the Consensus Approves Of in its highbrow literature? Ask Updike, he’ll tell you. In fact, he’s an ineffable guide to it.

APPOINTMENT is one of those self-conscious "fables" and in fact is rather reminiscent of THE LATE GEORGE APLEY, though a much better book, I think. Still, it’s easy to see why the litterateurs latched onto it: our protagonist’s journey is meant to parallel Christ’s, with a variety of stations of the cross and a dying for our "sins", here presumably the sins of narrow-minded small town conformity. There’s other things to say about that but first let’s just remark upon the gaudy sense of self-importance needed to try and get your protagonist compared to Christ, of all things. You don’t read APPOINTMENT and read a story, you read it and read "a story", with all the precious self-consciousness that inevitably entails.

In fact, once you think about it you realize our protagonist (I’m sorry, I don’t have his name, I’m experimenting with writing these posts during my lunch hour at work, which may help to increase the speed of ‘em but the downside is that I don’t have the books in front of me. Ah well, look it up on Wikipedia.) isn’t much like Christ at all. He’s not a perfect God incarnated in the flesh to take the sins of mankind upon Himself; he’s a spoiled failure who behaves badly and is summarily crushed for it. O’Hara obviously wants us to criticize small town mores, and he brings in the Christ metaphor sort of by the servant’s door in order to give the whole thing a bit more gravitas, but it’s only there to the extent that you want to buy into it. The fascinating fact is that so many tastemakers do indeed want to buy into it – Christianity is always useful as a hammer for the Great Unwashed, apparently.

And it’s odd, because APPOINTMENT is potentially about something much more interesting, the inescapability of fate. BUTTERFIELD 8 is more clear about that, and as a result is a much better book (one we’ll get to in a second) but y’know, that epigram isn’t only there to make the whole book sound spooky – it’s explicitly about the inescapability of fate. O’Hara sort of wants to dance around that fact here, but the book is less interesting as "small town mores crush the soul" (although this is a theme that O’Hara will return to, and it proved to be a very influential theme, see PEYTON PLACE, among others) and more interesting as "people are ground down by circumstance and don’t really have much of a choice or chance against life".

Of course, that’s a pretty bleak vision, and there ain’t going to be a lot of people who want to buy all-in to a vision of the world that tells you life is mechanistic and ultimately futile. Where I think O’Hara ultimately shines – it starts here although you really get to see it later on – is in the small areas, the small touches. It’s too bad I don’t have the novel here in front of me, to quote from – he had a wonderful ear, just a real gift for capturing in writing the way people of all sorts of classes talked. When hardboiled writers state that they admire O’Hara – and a lot of them do – this is the kind of thing I think they like. O’Hara also brought a real sense of place and understanding to his work – his small Pennsylvania city comes alive here, O’Hara really understands how the politics of such places work, how behavior can breach the careful mores of a town, the unstated rules, and how breaches can be dealt with. I grew up in a small isolated Pennsylvania town probably at the last time when such places could really be isolated, and even though that world was dying even then, I can still recognize parts of it in APPOINTMENT. (The amount of deference shown to certain families, for instance.)

That’s what’s valuable about APPOINTMENT. It’s merits outweigh it’s defects and it’s certainly worth reading, although it does tend to be rotely overpraised in some quarters.

BUTTERFIELD 8 is a much better book, and is one that I do recommend wholeheartedly. It’s much clearer about it’s real theme: life sucks and people are trapped and happiness is fleeting and frankly, we’ll all die alone in some horrible miserable lonely way. Which as you might guess doesn’t make it the most engaging book in the world, it is in fact a small masterpiece of despair and depression and in sections can be extremely exhausting to read.

Based on the mysterious suicide of…well, there’s no real modern equivalent of what she was, sadly, "slut" is accurate but too general; "hooker" isn’t quite right. Maybe "groupie" if you extended the concept out a bit. (Back in the day I think "doxy" worked.) Anyway, whatever you want to call her, BUTTERFIELD 8 manages to give you an unrelenting vision as well as small little grace notes, portraits of people and places that just jump off the page. The heroine’s rationale for stealing the mink coat, for instance, rings true, as does her complex sort of "love" (and sadly she can only seem to feel it covered by scare quotes) for the guy, and the rationale of the men in her life. O’Hara also gives us a very nice glimpse of the speakeasy culture of the day, which seems to me at least somewhat different from what you get in the movies, anyway. Not that the movies have ever lied to me about life before.

So O’Hara on the basis of these two books has put himself in the rather odd position that the things that are best about ‘em are not the things that I think he wanted to be best about ‘em. What works about APPOINTMENT are the small little touches, the small pictures of how a town and a way of life work – not the grandiose themes about Morality and Existence, none of which seem anything more than silly, really, today. And BUTTERFIELD 8 – well, I guess you can kinda sorta say it "works" as an unrelenting portrait of despair, but it’s an uncomfortable kind of "works" and probably stretches the definition of "works" to the breaking point. (The guillotine ‘works’ as a way to take care of the crime problem, but I think the criminal might have a point of view on this.) Certainly it’s more likely read now – again – for the small slices of life O’Hara presents, a vision of a different world.

Which leads us next to the short stories. Yeah, I’ve decided. The short stories next.

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