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Depressing Thought

Every so often, I do what my wife says. This Christmas, I read at her insistence John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, which she had read last Christmas, and which she insisted would ring all kinds of bells, which it did. O’Hara wrote the novel in the early 1930s--it was his first--and it was published in 1934. It takes place in three days around Christmas in 1930 in Gibbsville, a small Pennsylvania town whose prosperity was based upon anthracite coal mining, but which was losing jobs and money even before the crash.

Julian English is a descendant of one of Gibbsville’s old families who live on Lantenengo Street and gather at the Gibbsville Country Club for a Christmas dance. He is the president of the town’s Cadillac dealership.  Over the three days, his life disintegrates. He finally kills himself by carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage.  His death appears to be precipitated by his own disruptive misbehavior fuelled by drink. He throws a glass of whiskey in the face of Harry Reilly, a wealthy Irish Catholic who has bought his way into Gibbsville society; he insults his well-bred wife by propositioning a nightclub singer who is the mistress of the town Mafioso.    

But beneath these incidents, which a temperance crusader would blame entirely on alcohol, lurks Herbert Hoover and the onset of the Great Depression. They are almost an afterthought, a footnote in the pages of the novel, but as English’s story comes into focus, it becomes clear that what is driving him to self-destruction is imminent bankruptcy, the result in part of his inability to pay back a loan that Reilly, eager to please his social better, had made English earlier to help keep his dealership afloat.

One can make too much of novels, but O’Hara’s English and Gibbsville telescopes into three days what happened to the America of the late ‘20s--already suffering from growing unemployment, but still blissfully in self-denial--when it suffered financial ruin and joblessness. English himself doesn’t know why he throws the whiskey, but by the end of the book, it is clear that he did so because he has become fatally indebted to a man whom he regards as  his inferior.  That sets off a chain of events that convince English, finally, that his life, as he had known it, was over.

America isn’t necessarily heading into another Great Depression--at least I hope not.  But there is much to be learned from looking at the shock of recognition that Americans suffered in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  This year’s crop of Julian Englishes, who came of age in the midst of the Internet boom and of “Dow 35,000,” may yet have their own appointment in Samarra.

--John B. Judis