Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Appointment in Samarra

Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. It's all I ever seem to talk about when it comes to American literature. And there's a reason for it. Having an ear for real authentic dialogue is one of the most important parts of maintaining the audience's suspension of disbelief, or at least the reader's submersion into the work. Gaddis, Ford, Price, a bunch of other people, they're all good at dialogue, and all of them have often said John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra is a classic example of the uncanny ear.


Appointment in Samarra chronicles the days after Julian English, car salesman, husband, drunkard, throws a drink into a rich man's face, a rich man with important business connections. After this defining moment, English sinks into a drunk haze, and makes a fool of himself.

Rather than being about booze, this novel, O'Hara's first, is more about the decline of civilized man, taking away pieces of him to get to his inner person. Of course, the removal of these pieces is being done by English himself.

This isn't the trendsetter crowd of the Roaring Twenties, the young, the rich, the moderately famous. They're the kids too old for that in the Twenties, who have now entered into the Great Depression. F. Scott Fitzgerald's characters would have just sauntered around unfazed by all of this, whereas O'Hara's protagonist is utterly stuck in his town of Gibbsville.

O'Hara convincingly portrays a small-to-medium town, replete with local figures such as the doctor, the undertaker, the proletariat, the floozy, the secretary, the prominent local businessmen, etc, etc, etc. All of them sketched through minimal lines of dialogue and description. It's O'Hara's journalism background coming through monumentally.

However, his sketches of the cast tend to give the novel a "made up of short stories" feel, something I am definitely attuned to and can't mistake. This gives the overarching plot of the novel a somewhat undercooked feel.

The inevitability of the main character's death is presaged in the epigram, a snippet of a play by W. Somerset Maugham. However, it doesn't make the novel terribly dreary in spite of the haunting spectre of death.

As aforementioned, yes, the dialogue is fairly good. This novel was written in the 1930's so who am I to say that the dialogue is accurate. Sometimes the slang and the wit sounded phony to me, but I'm willing to say it's because the slang is 70 years old. The emotion that the dialogue conveys is portrayed honestly, and that's what matters most.

Appointment in Samarra was a fantastic read: sad, touching, uplifting sometimes, and it was written by a writer with skill and control, a true sign of excellence. I really enjoyed this novel, but I didn't love it; the episodic nature of the plot detracted. Moreover, this novel makes me want to read more by O'Hara if only to see him grow into his skills.

I picked up an old paperback copy of his 900 page monster From The Terrace for a couple bucks and we'll give that a go. Thanks for reading.

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