- Author: John O’Hara (1905-1970)
- Rank: #86
- Published: 1934
- Publisher: Harcourt Brace and Company
- Pages: 301 (Modern Library)
- First Line: “Our story opens in the mind of Luther L. (L for LeRoy) Fliegler, who is lying in his bed, not thinking of anything, but just aware of sounds, conscious of his own breathing, and sensitive to his own heartbeats.”
- Last Lines: ” ‘Who’s Alfred P. Sloan?’ ‘My God. Here I been selling – he’s president of General Motors.’ ‘Oh. So what did you say to him?’ said Irma.”
- ML Edition: #42 – 2 dust jackets (1962, 1967) / gold hardcover (1994)
- Film: upcoming 2011 film
- Acclaim: Modern Library Top 100 Novels (#22)
- Read: Spring, 1998
The Novel: When the Modern Library published their list of the Top 100 English Language 20th Century Novels in the Spring of 1998, this was one of the first novels I noticed. I had never read it, never even heard of it. My only experience with O’Hara at this time was that I had seen the horrible film version of his novel Butterfield 8. But this was the first book off the list that I read and I loved it. I was disappointed that I had never heard of it before, that it isn’t read or studied anymore, because it is a brilliant novel about life in a larger version of a small town, talking about the kind of lives that people live and don’t talk about, very much the novel that would pave the way for John Updike.
It is a measure of the power of the novel that it was finished before O’Hara ever stumbled across the Somerset Maugham story that gave the novel its title. The story so paves the way for the eventual death of Julian English, does such a remarkable job of always pointing the way towards his inevitable doom, that the Maugham parable is really the perfect epigraph and though, as he says in the introduction, no one liked the title, not Dorothy Parker, not Harcourt, not his editor, no one but him, he eventually forced it through because he knew it was the right title. It said everything that needed to be said.
O’Hara cuts his characters to the quick, with sharp brutal descriptions:
Irma Fliegler had hated Sylvia Bromberg since the summer before, when Sylvia was having a baby and screamed all through a summer evening. She could have gone to the Catholic hospital; she knew she was having a baby, and it was awful to have those screams and have to make up stories to tell the nice children why Mrs. Bromberg was screaming. It was disgusting.
O’Hara is also one of the first authors to make use of name brands and specific details, influenced greatly by the realism in Fitzgerald’s novels. These kind of details lend an air of authenticity to his descriptions, they make us feel certain ways about certain characters: “Slowly, without turning his head, he pulled himself up to a half sitting position and reached out for the package of Lucky Strikes on the table between his bed and Caroline’s bed.”
His characters somehow manage to evoke our sympathy and our disgust at the same time. The way he writes about characters that we shouldn’t care about: “When Caroline Walker fell in love with Julian English she was a little tired of him. That was in the summer of 1926, one of the most unimportant years in the history of the United States, and the year in which Caroline Walker was sure her life had reached a pinnacle of uselessness.” Yet, somehow as Julian moves ever closer to his death, we still manage to feel for him, to care about him, to wish him something other than death. Perhaps in that, Julian is the forerunner of Rabbit Angstrom. After all, Gibbsville seems to be the starting point for all those Updike towns.
Let’s face it. You probably haven’t read this book. Even with its inclusion so high on the Modern Library list, it isn’t studied, it isn’t read. But it’s worth reading, worth saving.