I took inordinate pleasure in Appointment in Samarra when I first read it in junior high school. I no longer remember what lead me to John O’Hara’s first novel, published in 1934, though I was still under the sway of Hemingway, and O’Hara’s prose read like clunky Papa. I do remember buying a paperback copy, off the revolving rack at the drug store, of O’Hara’s 1962 story collection The Cape Cod Lighter, but no recollection of its contents remained. Impulsively, I borrowed a copy of it the other day from the library and read it over two nights, hoping to find something worthwhile in a former bestseller now mostly forgotten by readers and critics.
“The Father” is a little gem. Miles J. Berry comes home from work at the Clinton Motor Company in Trenton, N.J., where he is assistant foreman and head mechanic. O’Hara is scrupulous about things like job titles. At age forty-two, Berry is not yet foreman, not quite management. He leaves his cap on as he sits at the kitchen table drinking a can of beer. His wife calls to him from the second floor and they begin a fractured, half-hearted conversation. Both are cranky but never turn angry. As Miles takes off his shoes and socks, he says, “Ah, Christ,” and his wife says “What are you beefing about now?” It’s a well-rehearsed dance of irritation and, mostly, indifference.
Berry’s sister in Nyack, N.Y., has sent him a letter accompanied by a newspaper clipping from 1943: “It showed four-and-a-half teen-age girls, some grinning, some in the midst of rolling their eyes, huddled together behind a sign that said” `Frankie Boy Is the Most—The Sinatra Swooners Trenton N.J.’ The caption gave the names of four of the girls, and the second girl from the left was Vilma Schrock, 17, Trenton.” The girls had been waiting outside the Paramount Theatre in New York City since 7 a.m., hoping for a glimpse of Sinatra. Vilma is Berry’s wife as a teenager, long before they met. In 1943, he was overseas and didn’t know she existed. O’Hara writes:
“There she was, the way she was at seventeen, looking as though she were about to charge the photographer and bite him. She had better teeth than the other girls in the picture, but did she have to look like a charging tigress? The photographer had probably said something disparaging about Frankie Boy, to get her reaction.”
Berry’s daughter Ava (an echo of Ava Gardner, one of Sinatra’s wives?) comes home. They start a low-grade argument about what’s on television and about the candy store where Ava has been hanging around. Ava retreats to her room and Berry can hear on her record player “the melancholy, despairing music that her generation loved, and soon her thin little voice, thin but true, joined in the tune. She could not be thinking of the words she was singing along with the boy vocalist; something about his little sweetheart, his little dove, lying dead on the highway.”
Understatedly, without further direct mention of Sinatra, O’Hara closes the story like this: “But her voice went along with the music, and Berry found that there were tears in his eyes, for Ava and for Vilma Schrock, 17, but mostly for Ava. And for every father, too, but mostly for Ava and the years ahead.”
One remembers the story’s title and thinks about the nature of Berry’s tears. How many are shed out of self-pity?