RARA-AVIS: Appointment In Samarra

From: James Michael Rogers (jeddak5@cox.net)
Date: 20 Sep 2009

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     I love keeping one or two canonical books in reserve for when I really need them. This John O'Hara classic fit the bill. In the past, all I have read of O'Hara's were some of the short fiction, which I had mixed feelings about.

    This was an excellent novel. Maybe not quite the great American novel, but that is clearly what he was shooting for and, for the most part, his ambition was rewarded. It's place in the hardboiled canon has always been a little uneasy, perhaps because of a little reverse snobbery - he was, after all, a New Yorker writer. But when Appointment In Samarra first appeared it was definitely considered the epitome of HB, and by critics who didn't consider that to be a compliment.

    I would go so far as to say that, without this book, there probably would be no Revolutionary Road and no Mad Men. It envisions the bourgouis world as a kind of Darwinian Hell. Thematically it owes a considerable debt to Scott Fitzgerald, as O'Hara acknowledged, and the style reminds me at times of John Dos Passos.....but mostly this is a unique voice.

    The sexuality of the book is, um, frank even by today's standards. At the time it appeared, it must have been truly shocking. The novel was published at the same time that Hammett came out with The Thin Man, which garnered some attention for a very oblique reference to a hard-on. O'Hara goes far, far beyond that. Twenty years earlier, publication would doubtless have resulted in an obscenity trial.

    As I grow older, I find that the old detective stuff satisfies me less and less and this kind of thing satisfies me more and more. If you like Patricia Highsmith's books or Horace McCoy, then I think you will enjoy this. Though enjoy may be the wrong word.

    The story is quite simple. The struggling protagonist is destroyed by what can only be described as a series of drunken faux pas. In the course of the plot, he alienates everyone from the lowest and highest gangster to his employer and his wife. Finally he alienates himself. In fact, the book is really the story of a man who discovers, one fine day, that he hates his own guts.

    Most of you guys have probably already read this, I reckon. But for those who haven't or who have been keping it in reserve as I did, I give it an unqualified endorsement.



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