When Nick and Nora Charles enjoy a cocktail in Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man yarns, they become effusive. When they enjoy several, they become wittier still and lots of fun.
When John O’Hara’s characters enjoy a cocktail, they look into their glasses, brood and fight.
Edmund Wilson, O’Hara and Hammett’s contemporary, grouped both among a cluster of “hard-boiled” writers whom he considered unworthy of much serious attention. Today, 80 years after the publication of what might be O’Hara’s best book, Appointment in Samarra, it’s clear both that the hard-boiled label has merit, though O’Hara had less pulpy leanings than that label suggests, and that his grim novel has stood up well to the passing decades. (In June, Penguin Classics reissued O’Hara’s Ten North Frederick, which means that that National Book Award–winning novel from 1956 is back in print for the first time in 25 years.)
O’Hara’s enduring project was to capture his Pennsylvania hometown in the same unforgiving way that Sherwood Anderson had put his Ohio haunts between covers. In O’Hara’s Gibbsville, the smart set drinks by the gallon while counting the money they’ve made from coal—beg pardon, anthracite, for “People outside Pennsylvania do not know that there is all the difference in the world between the two kinds of coal, and in the conditions under which anthracite and bituminous are mined.”
If they have any money left, that is, for this is the heart of the Depression, and Julian English, Cadillac dealer and country-clubber, isn’t having a good time of it. Money, the sole gauge of worth in Gibbsville, is in short supply. Though Julian is young, well-educated and a player, he’s miserable, and over the pages of O’Hara’s short novel—its title an allusion to an Iraqi proverbial tale about death—he decides to prove it by behaving very badly.
First, he tosses a drink into the face of a well-connected investor to whom he’s in debt. Or does he? Opening with a steamy scene that kept the censors hopping in its day, Appointment settles into a hallucinatory haze, told by an eminently untrustworthy narrator, so that we’re not sure if Julian merely imagines the assault. What’s certain is that he then tries to pick up a gangster’s girlfriend. By this time, he’s roaring drunk—comments one onlooker, in part in admiration, “He can drink all night without showing it. When he shows it, boy, you can be pretty sure he has damn near a quart under his belt”—and so, in a way, can be forgiven for his transgression.
But gangsters aren’t the forgiving type, and neither are slighted wives, which brings Julian to his next insult: attacking a hero of World War I who, though missing an arm, figures he’s still a pretty good match for his swaying opponent. So does Julian, who, after punching Froggy Ogden—there’s a name for you—goes rushing off into the night to meet the destiny he’s been bound for all along.
Appointment in Samarra, also reissued recently by Penguin Classics, shocked the readers of its time, as did the books with which O’Hara followed, such as Butterfield 8 and Pal Joey. It seems tamer 80 years on, but it’s highly readable, a rougher cousin of The Great Gatsby and Of Mice and Men as a document of the last time the country seemed to be mired in a crisis that wouldn’t quit.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.