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From the Terrace by John O'Hara

From the Terrace (1958)

by John O'Hara

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From the Terrace is a massive novel. Covering a period from the protagonist’s birth in 1897 to the postwar 1940’s. it presents power struggles at the highest levels of business and government against a background of sexual intrigue and violent death.

Raymond Alfred Eaton, called Alfred, is born into the upper economic and social stratum of a small Pennsylvania town, Port Johnson. His father, Samuel Eaton, owns the local steel mill. Alfred is deeply suspicious of himself, largely because of an occurrence during his boyhood over which he had no control. His elder brother, William, was the favorite son and was destined to succeed his father as the first citizen of Port Johnson until he died of meningitis at fourteen. Alfred’s father never is able to show his surviving son the same attention he lavished upon William. Two additional events reinforce Alfred’s sense of himself as a sort of jinx to others. He quarrels with his first love, sixteen-year-old Victoria Dockwiler, forbidding her to go riding in a borrowed Stutz Bearcat. She defies him and is killed in a car crash. Alfred then begins an affair with a family friend, Norma Budd, seven years older than he. Norma is later the victim of a married lover, who kills first her and then himself. Although it is irrational for Alfred to think that he corrupted Norma, he feels vaguely responsible later for her death.

Alfred attends Princeton University until the United States enters World War I. He serves with distinction as a naval officer but does not return to Princeton after the war. Declining his father’s offer of a job at the mill he and Lex Thornton, his best friend , start an aircraft company together. Alfred meets eighteen-year-old Mary St. John at a party, and here begins the sort of sexual triangle typically found in O’Hara’s later novels.

Mary is engaged to Jim Roper, a pre-medical student. Alfred is strongly attracted to Mary, more sexually than romantically, and he succeeds in winning her away from Roper. Their marriage in the spring of 1920 corresponds exactly with the death of Alfred’s father. The marriage is not a happy one. Meanwhile, Alfred has happened upon a young boy who has fallen through the ice into a pond. Alfred saves the child from drowning, thus earning the gratitude of the boy’s grandfather, James MacHardie. MacHardie is a rich and powerful Wall Street banker. He offers Alfred a job in New York, which he takes becoming an immediate success in banking, but he soon learns that he has relinquished his freedom of action. The image of MacHardie and Company is not to be tarnished by the divorce of any of its executives, so Alfred must stay married to Mary. At this point Alfred's life slowly declines through troubles with a mistress and at his job. The story would be a tragedy if Alfred had any heroic qualities. He never learns how to live with himself or others and gradually is isolated.

As the novel ends, Alfred is recovering from an illness brought on by the travails of his public and private life. He is unable to find another position, having cut himself off from the business and government arenas in which he previously thrived. He is financially secure, but he is not yet fifty and has no prospects in business or social relationships. This novel is an excellent example of naturalism demonstrating the dissoluteness of the upper class. As usual in O’Hara’s fiction, the physical details are flawless. The clothing, architecture, technology, and language of the novel’s succeeding decades are authentic down to the minutest point. Yet, perhaps due to the myriad details, it ultimately was a bit of a slog to finish. John O'Hara is at his best in his short stories and short novels like the classic, Appointment in Samarra. ( )
  jwhenderson | Sep 7, 2017 |
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There are alive today hundreds of men who saw Samuel Eaton, who accepted wages from him, envied him, hated him, laughed at him behind his back, worked hard for him, cheated him, and never addressed him except as Mr. Eaton or Mr. Samuel.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0786706821, Paperback)

An uncommonly good novel . . . a considerable achievement - Saturday Review With over three million copies sold, O'Hara's great novel of America in the first half of the century was made into an acclaimed film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. It richly chronicles one man's rise to wealth, power, and prominence - and the haunting sense of failure at his heart. "More than any other American novelist, O'Hara has both reflected his times and captured the uniquely individual" - Los Angeles Times

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:46 -0400)

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