Friday, November 17, 2006

# 22 Appointment in Samarra – John O’Hara

In Iraq in early November 2006 at Forward Operating Base Brassfield-Mora (named after Specialists Artimus Brassfield and Jose Mora, who were killed in separate mortar attacks in October 2003) the U.S. military sponsored a dinner at which “key leaders in the Samarra area met…to discuss mutual interests and foster closer relations while working together to achieve stability in the region,” as stated judiciously for the record in Defend America.

Samarra, located 62 miles northwest of Baghdad in the
“Sunni Triangle,” has lacked stability for several years.

In February 2006 two men
blew up the golden dome of the al-Askari shrine, a Shia holy site of the tombs of Imam Ali al-Naqi and his son Imam Hasan al-Askari.

On November 30, 2003 U.S. forces
engaged in a firefight with guerillas in Samarra, and, “…claimed to have killed 54 attackers and captured eight others.” In the following days the accuracy of the death toll and the scope and nature of the conflict were widely disputed—one journalistic reexamination was entitled “Appointment in Samarra.”

This headline, like the title of John O’Hara’s 1934 novel, was appropriated from W. Somerset Maugham’s 1933 play,
Sheppey, in which the playwright retold an ancient fable about Death meeting a young servant, who futilely tries to escape his fate by fleeing Baghdad for Samarra. Maugham’s source was likely a translation of a ninth century Arabian Sufi story in Fudail ibn Ayad’s Hikayat-I-Naqshia; an earlier version appeared in the Babylonian Talmud.

O’Hara excerpted Maugham’s entire vignette as an epigraph because he thought it "fitted nicely into the inevitability of [the protagonist] Julian English's death,"
according to Bill Duryea of The St. Petersburg Times. Just four days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, Duryea’s contemplation of the war, the Sufi tale and O’Hara’s novel still resonates:
“Reading that fable today, it's hard not to think of the fate that awaits American soldiers as they push through the Iraqi desert bound for Baghdad. So much is at stake -- the lives of soldiers and innocents, the future of a troubled region and the security of our own nation. We are riding to Samarra, among other places. It is not literature. It is not metaphor… A chain of events has begun and while it plays out we wonder what it is that we have set in motion. Is there an ineluctable fate that awaits us?”
Duryea further summarized O’Hara’s portrayal of “religious and ethnic bigotry” between Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Irish, Italians and other groups. More than three and a half years after his article, descendants of those American combatants are conducting, among other activities, dinner meetings to mediate between Sunnis and Shiites.

In alluding to “Julian’s downward spiral,” Duryea unwittingly evoked a Samarran landmark, the
spiral minaret of the Great Mosque. Metaphor, reality, observation and allusion continue to collide in Iraq.

O’Hara, like Maugham, was interested in the universality of the old tale, not the social or historical reality of Samarra, founded in 836 by the Abassid Caliph al-Mu'tasem Billah. He targeted primarily his hometown of Pottsville, PA, founded in 1806 by John Pott. “Gibbsville” stands in for Pottsville as the setting for Appointment in Samarra, several other novels and more than 50
short stories.

Considered a consummate “natural storyteller” and a practitioner of
social realism, O’Hara sought to faithfully depict his neighbors, warts and all. He is Pottsville’s famous literary son and the subject of ongoing tours and events. Yuengling Brewery (Yuengling is German meaning 'Young Man' and is pronounced Ying-Ling), founded in 1829 and the oldest American brewery, produces bottles that are Pottsville’s portable, potable standard-bearers. At one time the O’Hara family lived in a home owned by the Yuengling family.

With typical incisiveness, the narrator of Appointment in Samarra notes:
“In a town the size of Gibbsville—24,032, estimated 1930 census—the children of the rich live within two or three squares of the children of the parents who are not rich, not even by Gibbsville standards. This makes for a spurious democracy…”
This description mirrored the facts of
Pottsville, which now has a population of about 15,000 and is no longer a coal-region boomtown. Another writer, in a review of a biography of O’Hara, expanded:
“Pottsville still teemed during O’Hara’s youth. With an ethnic diversity including Pennsylvania-Dutch farmers, Irish and Welsh coal miners, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Swedes, and the predominantly Anglo-Saxon, Protestant aristocracy of bankers and managers thriving on the anthracite industry, the town was a treasury of class distinctions and yet small enough, at around twenty-five thousand, so that everybody rubbed elbows. A doctor and his eldest son sampled this society at every stratum, and the odd democracy of Prohibition mingled gangsters and molls with the country-club set, of which the O’Haras, though Irish, were dancing, horse-riding members.”
The reviewer was the novelist John Updike, a fellow Pennsylvanian
from Shillington, a 38-mile drive from Pottsville. A literary social realist himself, Updike used “Brewer” and “Olinger” as stand-ins for Reading and Shillington in many books. Updike has been a staff member at and frequent contributor to The New Yorker; he noted that O’Hara holds the record for published pieces there.

The only tedious sections—they’re scarce and brief—of Appointment in Samarra occur in O’Hara’s cataloguing of the logistics and financing of Julian English’s employer, a
Cadillac dealership. A paragraph including “Number of cars sold in 1930; our cut on new cars sold; gas and oil profit 1930…” immerses the reader in English’s world and mindset, but the impatient reader quickly gets the drift and jumps to the punch line relating the hero’s distress: “I have to have five thousand dollars.”

The centathlete recalls passages more elaborate, more technical, even more skippable on the same topic in Updike’s Rabbit is Rich, as Rabbit Angstrom profits from and wrestles with his
Toyota dealership. (He also recalls an interminable chapter on the operations of a Newark, NJ glove manufacturer in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.) Such faithful renderings reflect a certain understandable authorial insistence on and attention to detail, but they unfailingly move the centathlete to turn the page hastily—hey, he hasn’t owned a car in 18 years.

O’Hara’s literary realism was forged when he worked as a
reporter for the Pottsville Journal from 1924-1926 and subsequently as a rewrite man, radio columnist and movie critic for New York City periodicals. As you might expect from an ace journalist, he does dialogue superbly. He “plays the angles” (originally a squash term referring to a tricky shot that is difficult to return) in exchanges that expertly convey, among other sentiments, sarcasm, despair, intimacy and jealousy. For example, consider when Caroline, having decided to divorce Julian, seeks out her mother for advice and consolation:
“‘I’m sorry, I just came here because I had to speak to somebody and I didn’t want to talk to somebody that’d blab it all over.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘Yes, I’m serious.’
‘But are you? Are you serious, Caroline? That’s a very serious thing, when people start talking about a divorce. We’ve never had a divorce in our family, and I don’t think there was ever one in Julian’s family either. What is it?’
‘I’m just fed up. I’m sick and tired and miserable. I’m just so miserable and unhappy. I’m so unhappy, Mother, I don’t care if I die.’
‘Die, dear? Are you pregnant? Are you, dear?
You could be wrong, you know. It might just be the strain, Christmas.’ She got up and sat beside Caroline. ‘Come here, dear. Tell me about it. Mother wants to hear all about it.’
‘Caroline wants to cry,’ said Caroline, and laughed.”
What an ear! The unbridged generation gap on display at a time of crisis, the conflict between propriety and health, the self-conscious infantilization—drama on the page can’t get much better.

An artistic forebear to Updike, O’Hara was also an immediate successor to F. Scott Fitzgerald— in fact, O’Hara has been called a “seamy Fitzgerald,” a characterization that can be seen in both a positive and negative light according to taste—as evidenced in Appointment in Samarra, which works within the context of
Prohibition (1920-1933), jazz, adultery, organized crime, social climbing and class conflict. All those elements also coalesce in The Great Gatsby, published in 1925.

Imagine The Great Gatsby written in the omniscient third person—what would be different? In narrating from Nick Carraway’s limited perspective, Fitzgerald clouded the facts of Jay Gatsby’s background and downfall, creating a myth of the tragic Self-Made Man trying to get The Girl.

O’Hara, the former reporter, did not aspire to make myths. According to the
Penn State Library, he “...emphasized complete objectivity in his books, writing frankly about the materialistic aspirations and sexual exploits of his characters.” In only one short section of Appointment in Samarra he employs the first person, giving voice to Caroline. The switch enhances the overall verisimilitude and visceral momentum of the unfolding action rather than complicates the plot through ambiguity and uncertainty.

How can we view the contrast in narrative technique between the “best” books of two Irish-American writers who were both famously obsessed with status and wealth in their fiction and their actual lives?

On the grand scale, the Great Depression began in 1929-1930, halfway between the publications and, also, divergent Americas. The cautionary strain in The Great Gatsby (ex. Carraway’s damning appraisal of the Buchanans as people who break things) is poignant and powerful beyond the damage done to certain characters because the American ship in 1925 continues to sail on an exuberantly high tide. Dreams, innuendoes, lies, and misunderstandings, the true subjects of that novel, themselves project an aura and smog so suitable for a mythologizer instead of a reporter.

After the Depression began in 1929-1930, the weather dried up and most boats were grounded. Even O’Hara’s prosperous characters, such as Julian English, demonstrate anxiety from the economic drought. English will die, we know from the beginning, and life for others will carry on, but only in a compromised, tenuous condition.

On the personal scale, it’s helpful to consider Princeton. Fitzgerald attended Princeton University (though he didn’t graduate) and belonged to
Cottage Club, one of the social-eating institutions he wrote about in This Side of Paradise. O’Hara died and is buried in Princeton.

O’Hara was unable to attend Yale University as he planned, or any other college, due to his father’s premature death; he carried a chip on his shoulder the rest of his life. Brendan Gill
observed, "People used to make fun of [it], but it was never a joke to O'Hara. It seemed... that there wasn't anything he didn't know about in regard to college and prep-school matters."

After Princeton, Fitzgerald for some time hobnobbed with high society in New York and Europe. O’Hara was more of a professional writer and less of a socialite. He set his fiction in less rarefied environs; Gibbsville is patently less cosmopolitan than Fitzgerald’s West and East Egg and New York City—and more representative of the country’s general climate and downsized dreamscape.

O’Hara’s work was far more popular in its time than was Fitzgerald’s, and it sold well throughout his life, a fact he was by no means ashamed of. He
told his audience in 1967, "...you must not expect modesty from me. I am just as aware as anyone else that my books have sold something like 15 million copies, and I could not have attained that circulation if I had not been readable."

Through Appointment in Samarra and his other novels and short stories, O’Hara practiced “non-judgmental, unhysterical” (the adjectives of a Village Voice reviewer) literary accounting that is notable for its repression of authorial bias and ego. As the comments from 1967 suggest, such repression did not translate into real life.

The centathlete can’t help observing that O’Hara possessed a trait common, perhaps endemic, to other first-rate realistic-journalistic novelists such as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe: first-rate hubris. O’Hara affirmed forever his robust self-appraisal by writing the epitaph for his own
gravestone:

“Better than anyone else he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.”

We read this well after his last appointment in Princeton, recently after many others’ last appointments in Iraq, and before our own.



Coming soon…

Howards End



Wednesday, November 08, 2006

# 42 Deliverance – James Dickey

On the first day of a college lecture course devoted to Dante’s Inferno, the professor observed that modern classics such as James Dickey’s Deliverance, published in 1970, are unavoidably read with the seminal Italian masterpiece in mind.

Parallels and allusions come to mind readily (SparkNotes offers at least one essay on this subject.) In the novel four “middle-aged, responsible” Atlantans set out for a weekend outdoors in rural Georgia; Dante’s narrator, at age 35, “the
midway of this mortal life,” finds himself in a dark wood. The canoe trip in Deliverance becomes a journey like Dante’s through Hell. The sodomy scene in the backwoods evokes those sinners placed in the Seventh Circle (sodomy was seen as “violence against nature”). The “deliverance” desired is equated early by Dickey’s narrator, Ed Gentry, with “another life,” but the events that follow affirm religious connotations of rescue from evil, and of salvation.

Thanks largely to the 1972
movie written also by Dickey and directed by John Boorman, Deliverance is most remembered for two scenes: the “Dueling Banjos” face-off between the hillbilly boy and Gentry’s fellow city slicker, Drew Ballinger, who actually plays a guitar (Dickey himself was an accomplished guitarist); and the previously mentioned violent act. A certain bit of the victim’s improvised dialogue (it doesn’t appear in the novel) resounds in our culture perversely yet comically, as indicated in a web search. Of course the book offers much more in both plot and technique, as its dramatic tension and lyrical description entwine around the reader, tighten, and then ease.

The primacy of depictions of evil in the public’s consciousness has affected Dante’s work as well as Dickey’s. Inferno has always been the most read and studied canticle of the trifold Commedia; the subsequent Purgatorio and Paradiso have held relatively meager appeal. For a reader, moviegoer or TV watcher, Billy Joel’s lusty
claim, “sinners are much more fun,” is patently confirmed by any villain-stocked soap opera, though there’s little fun on display in Inferno and Deliverance.

The cover of the
Delta edition of Deliverance features a yellow triangle that reinforces the canoers’ profound, allegorical descent into danger and evil, while exploiting ancient geometric symbology: “The downward pointing triangle…is the symbol of water (as it flows downward), the grace of heaven, and the womb.”

The graphic triangle also suggests the arrowhead that Gentry fatefully employs. Early in the narrative Gentry establishes that he is an amateur archer who admires the skill of his friend Lewis Medlock with a
recurve bow.

Medlock initiates and organizes the canoe trip, inspiring, peeving and daunting his three friends with his virility and recklessness. In an
interview with The Paris Review, Dickey noted that Medlock “…is a survival freak who is a nut on special disciplines, such as archery, canoeing, and so on.”

Medlock tells Gentry that on his property he, “…had an air-raid shelter built…with double doors and stocks of bouillon and bully beef for a couple of years.” He adds that he would rather try to cope in the wilderness after society has broken down: “You know I’d go up in those hills, and I believe I’d make out where many another wouldn’t.”

For an elder MTV viewer, an air-raid shelter inevitably cues up the
video for Donald Fagen’s “New Frontier.” A crooner/keyboardist who shaped the music of the 70’s as did Billy Joel, Fagen was riffing on the structure his own father built and he explored while growing up in New Jersey.

The centathlete has never set foot in such a shelter, but he did crouch against the wall with hands behind his head for air-raid drills in elementary school. He recalls
fallout shelter signs and their symbols that were obscure to a youngster: three yellow downward pointing triangles. Today’s students don’t practice those drills, and those signs are now just Cold War kitsch.

Evanescent pop-culture iconography appears in Deliverance. As Gentry drives into the country he sees
Clabber Girl and Black Draught signs. The centathlete was unfamiliar with this baking powder and laxative syrup and their advertisements; he was reminded of several other Southern goods he became aware of only as an adult. In Knoxville, TN, after lunch, an acquaintance announced his craving for a Little Debbie, MoonPie or GooGoo Cluster. The centathlete, no stranger to sweets and snack cakes, expressed his ignorance of all three desserts and was subsequently treated to samples, which he was instructed to wash down with an RC Cola. A shrill sugar high ensued.

Other regions claim their own treats. On Long Island the centathlete would sometimes help a friend with his newspaper route. Afterward, bikes were ridden to the deli for a
Drake’s Coffee Cake (essentially unknown in the South) and a Yoo-hoo. Despite their love for that chocolate-flavored soft drink—according to the manufacturer, Yoo-hoo is “definitely not considered a flavored milk” but “it does contain certain ingredients from milk - specifically, dairy whey and non-fat milk”—certain thirsty youngsters felt cheated by the 11-ounce cans and they suspected corporate stinginess. Sunkist and other sodas deemed nearly as suitable for accompanying a coffee cake all delivered 12 ounces of beverage. (In the late 1950’s James Dickey was an advertising executive whose accounts included Coca-Cola.)

Yoo-hoo was endorsed for years by
Yogi Berra, the New York Yankee who participated in 14 World Series for 10 winners, both Major League Baseball records. The centathlete was far too young to have seen Berra catch a game, but he sensed his own Yankee-hood that day in Knoxville as he ripped open his Little Debbies for the first and only time.

The first and only time the centathlete went whitewater rafting was on a river near Lake Tahoe during a bachelor party weekend. That event, though undeniably enjoyable (and delightfully commemorated by a purchased photo of the grinning and grimacing dudes paddling through the rapids), was far tamer than the canoe trip in Deliverance.

Dickey waxed sympathetic about his weekend warriors, stating, “My men are decent guys… Suburban people, especially these fellows, are supposed to go out there and look at nature a little bit…have fun before it all disappears.”

He expounded on his dramatic treatment of their journey through Hell:
“I’ll tell you what I really tried to do in Deliverance. My story is simple: there are bad people, monsters among us. Deliverance is really a novel about how decent men kill, and the fact that they get away with it raises a lot of questions about staying within the law—whether decent people have the right go outside the law when they’re encountering human monsters. I wrote Deliverance as a story where under the conditions of extreme violence people find out things about themselves that they would have no other means of knowing. The late John Berryman…said that it bothered him more than anything else that a man could live in this culture all his life without knowing whether he’s a coward or not. I think it’s necessary to know.”
Having briefly mined symbols and themes, we now return to that college professor who mentioned Deliverance simply as an aside as he proceeded over the semester to pedagogically reduce and amplify the beauty and meanings of Inferno.

Wallace Fowlie was a remarkable teacher of more than 6,000 students during a career that spanned seven decades. An expert in French and, to a lesser extent, Italian literature, he
published more than 50 books of translations, criticism, memoirs, poetry, and a novel. During his final years he taught a cycle of three courses: Dante’s Inferno, the French symbolist poets, and Proust.

The number three, which the triangle realizes in space, has gleamed with mystical import for many cultures. For Greeks and Romans it
symbolized among other things, “completeness in narrative time (beginning, middle, end).” Deliverance is structured as a Before, During and After, indicative of the archetypal, heroic, transforming voyage.

For Catholics, three represents the Holy Trinity. In the Commedia, Dante practiced “triadomania” (which we might term an artistic fetish for the number three) on several levels, according to Thomas Bergin, as cited by another
lecturer.

The centathlete recalls a typical Wallace Fowlie lesson as divinely threefold. First, the professor read from Inferno in the original Italian, exhibiting the poem’s sonic excellence. Second, he illuminated several motifs and details of the particular canto. Third, he related an anecdote from personal experience in which the masterpiece resonated (ex. He dined with an Italian nobleman who said he was directly descended from a pope damned by Dante). This last stage, the connection between classic literature and everyday life, made Fowlie’s lessons especially engaging and enlightening.

A cohesive, brief biography is not readily available on the Internet, so the centathlete cobbled together the following
curriculum vitae (Latin for “the course of one’s life”) based on Fowlie’s own Journal of Rehearsals, Stephen Martin’s article, “A Catholic Presence: Duke’s Wallace Fowlie,” and other sources. Here then, with apologies for any errors (which will be corrected), is a digested biography of Wallace Fowlie, posted on his birthday:

1908
Born November 8 in Brookline, MA, a suburb of Boston.
1920
In the 7th Grade takes Introductory French, beginning a lifelong love affair and career.
1922
At age 13 attends a lecture in Boston by the French poet,
Paul Claudel, a subject of future literary studies.
1927
Enters Harvard University in the second semester after a long illness.
1928
At age 19, before his junior year, travels to France for the first of at least 20 times throughout his life.
Early 1930’s
Undertakes graduate studies at Harvard. Professors include T.S. Eliot.
1934
In Paris meets with novelist
Andre Gide to discuss Ernest Psichari and other French and American writers.
1935
Begins teaching French at Bennington College in Vermont.
1936
Receives Ph.D. from Harvard.
Late 1930’s
In Iowa meets Robert Penn Warren, American poet and novelist, for the first time, beginning a long friendship. Converts to Catholicism (having been raised Baptist) while teaching at Bennington.
1941
Becomes assistant professor of French at Yale University.
1943
Publishes an article on Narcissus in the
surrealist journal View. Receives complimentary letter from American novelist Henry Miller. Their correspondence lasts until 1972.
1944
Miller visits New Haven and stays with Fowlie.
1950
Returns to Bennington as head of French department and simultaneously begins teaching at The New School in New York where one student, Barney Rosset, had recently purchased
Grove Press.
1953
In Paris sees one of the first productions of En attendant Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett, and urges Rosset to buy its publishing rights (as well those for plays by Eugène Ionesco and Jean Genet, though these two were ignored). Rosset’s own
account of this “discovery” of Godot differs somewhat; attesting that he brought the French text to Fowlie, who read it and confirmed its greatness. Rosset acquires the rights for Waiting for Godot and becomes the playwright’s longtime publisher and agent in America.
1962
Becomes professor of French at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
1964
Becomes professor of French at Duke University.
1966
Translates and publishes the complete works of French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
1968
Receives a letter from Jim Morrison expressing gratitude for the Rimbaud translation: “I am a rock singer and your book travels around with me.”
1968
Named James B. Duke Professor of French.
1975
Publishes Letters of Henry Miller and Wallace Fowlie: 1943-1972.
1992
Retires from teaching.
1993
At age 85 publishes a critical
comparison of Rimbaud and Morrison.
1998
Dies August 15 in Durham, NC.

Fowlie purposefully exemplified an interdependent devotion to literature and religion in the manner of Dante Alighieri and T.S. Eliot (who according to Roger Kimball
wrote, “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes.”). His conversion in adulthood to Catholicism is reminiscent of Eliot’s conversion in his late 30’s to Anglicanism. The centathlete recalls remarks on this latter event at a class conducted by Julian Thompson, an English professor of Literature at Oxford University, who rhetorically posed the question that if Eliot had wanted to authentically commit or re-commit himself to Tradition, should he have converted to Catholicism, the Mother Church, instead?

The centathlete won’t play
Monday morning quarterback regarding another’s Ash Wednesday, nor argue here with notions of Paradise or deliverance. However, to indulge the reader’s enduring preference for evil, crime and torture, he offers his conception of Hell: he is strapped to a chair like Alex in A Clockwork Orange with eyes held open, forced for eternity to watch reruns, co-hosted by Chevy Chase and Donald Trump, of the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, as the infernal hi-fi loops Jackson Browne’s “Lawyers in Love.”


Coming soon…

Howards End
Appointment in Samarra