Sunday, April 15, 2007

Appointment in Samarra

Dave used to tell me things about this novel. Actually, he used to tell me about the story O'Hara uses to begin his novel, a story about Death meeting a man in the market. The man is startled to see Death and runs home to his master, asks for a horse and money so he can escape Death and run to Samarra. The master gives him everything he wants and off he gallops, hell bent for leather. The master meets Death later, and Death explains--Death was surprised to see the servant in the market. "I have an appointment with him later, in Samarra."

I can't remember the contexts for Dave's discussions of the story, or O'Hara's novel. No doubt he had a point to make about how hard it is to escape our fates. Or else he wanted to call my attention to this novel, which doesn't get much airplay, but--now that I've finally read it--does, to my mind, another number on the same sort of world that Fitzgerald takes on in The Great Gatsby.

Even though I've read The Great Gatsby at least two times, I can't really remember much about it right now, except that Daisy (I think that's her name) runs over someone with her car, and Jake (is that his name?) comes back from obscurity with lots of money to throw massive parties and to try to win Daisy over to his side. She plays him for all he's worth, runs over someone, and then ends up with her brutish once-rich faux-aristo husband again in the end. It's one of those novels designed to expose all the savagery of the idle American rich, and as such is a classic, one of the top dozen novels a person should read in order to call herself an educated American. (I've no doubt exposed myself here, or at least exposed my faulty memory banks, by committing all sorts of errors in fact and plot and theme. Oh well.)

In any case, my experience of O'Hara's novel was quite good. As I was reading the story, which deals with several middle class families in a small Pennsylvania town outside of Philadelphia, I was pleasantly shocked at O'Hara's treatment of sexuality (blunt, unromanticized, only half euphemized) and marriage (blunt, unromanticized, not euphemized at all) and alcoholism (ditto marriage). Looking at the copyright date, 1934, I expected the story to suffer from the brittle self consciousness of many Depression/Prohibition era novels that didn't quite make it to the "must read" lists of the later part of the century, the cracked patina of the hordes of "hilarious" black and white screwball comedies that used to define American Movie Classics (before they started chopping movies from the later decades into tidbits with commercials--in fact, is there even an American Movie Classic channel anymore? Wow. I don't think there is...) But the novel does a very good job of getting at middle class suburbia, men who sell Cadillacs, country club frat boys, and their bored, desperate wives, and at the spiritual vacuity that leads them to self destruct.

I'm sure that Johns Updike and Cheever owe a small tip of the hat each to O'Hara, who years before them captured the angst of Eastern suburbia, the general pointlessness of daily human interaction, and the material strivings of communities divided by religion, ethnic origins, money, and politics--but mostly by a sort of spiritual sterility.

(I note from the site where I found the picture for this entry that Fran Lebowitz called O'Hara 'the real ... Fitzgerald,' though that citation can't be verified because of the vagaries of Wikipedia, and that Updike has been one of O'Hara's consistent supporters. What do I learn from this? That I should trust my gut reactions.)

For those of you who've recommended that I read McCarthy's The Road, you'll be happy to know that I've decided to include it in my senior creative writing seminar in the fall. I have yet to read it (just ordered it from, which has suckered out of me the 75.00 it takes to get my selections sent to me free on the 2-day plan) but, based on the blurbs, very much look forward to it. I love post apocalyptic narratives (don't ask me why, because they scare the shit out of me... it's probably because they scare the shit out of me that I love them). If you've got a favorite post-apocalyptic narrative you'd like to recommend, drop me a comment. The best ones I've read lately have been, in order of greatness:

1. Orynx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
2. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
3. The Stand, Stephen King
4. The Children of Men, P. D. James

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