Monday, March 24, 2008

John O'Hara, a Good Discussion

This month our book club read “Appointment in Samarra” by John O’Hara. One of our members researched the book and found some very interesting biographical information about John O’Hara. He was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. His father was a skull surgeon and the family was part of the upper class in the small town of Pottsville. There were many similarities between John O’Hara and the main character of the book, Julien English. The difference between the two, was that John O’Hara was Irish Catholic and Julien was a Protestant. Growing up in Pottsville, John O’Hara and his family felt excluded because they were Irish Catholic. Julien English was automatically accepted by the people that mattered in Gibbsville. “Appointment In Sumarra” was said to be John O’Hara’s revenge on the Protestants who had snubbed and excluded him growing up in Pottsville. This sentiment was combined with his distress over his brief marriage to Helen Petit, an Episcopalian, whose family did not approve of O’Hara and his hard drinking, journalist life style. In the early thirties John O’Hara’s writing career was failing as was Julien English’s Cadillac agency. But John O’Hara went on to write many short stories and some well known screen plays, such as “From the Terrace,” “Pal Joey,” and “Butterfield 8”. He married three times and was known as a social climber and an alcoholic.

When the book was published in 1934 it was received as “scandalously sexy”. It depicted sex with a married woman who enjoyed having sex. He wrote about women as sexual creatures and men who wanted sex every ten minutes. Both concepts were new to fiction in 1934. The numerous anti-Semitic references were reflective of the sentiments of small town American in that era. O’Hara was obsessed with social climbing and carefully related the “rules” of the country club set i.e. who got to sit next to the “sad bird” and what was the expected reward.

Our discussion of this book centered on the question----“What happened to Julien?” We discussed the reasons for Julien’s quick decline or downward spiral (within 3 days) to have germinated long before the incident of throwing the drink in Harry Riley’s face. He had been branded, as a youth, to be a thief by his father. He thought he had the "bad gene" of his grandfather, who had committed suicide. He had taken the loan from Harry Riley that he could not pay back. His marriage to Caroline was troubled, although they loved each other. And, finally he had double crossed the mobster, Ed Charney. It was a combination of economic ruin, social ruin and a troubled marriage, that led to his downfall. He had crossed one boundary too many and he could not escape his “Appointment in Samarra” (his appointment with death).

Our group was puzzled about why the story ended with Lute Fliegler’s joke. But, we all felt that we had a very good discussion about a book that some readers did not enjoy. Those are often our best book group discussions!

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