Shadowing O'Hara in The Region

Published: Sunday, November 9, 2008
John O'Hara fans, take note! Kerry Zukus is following in the noted author's footsteps and he's quite good at it.

In 1934, O'Hara used Pennsylvania's anthracite region and his hometown, Pottsville, as the setting for his first, and most famous, novel, "Appointment in Samarra."

Nearly 75 years later, Zukus also places "The Fourth House" in coal country, but the first-time novelist focuses his attention on Frackville, where he grew up in the 1960s and 1970s.

With acknowledgement to his literary predecessor, he even borrowed several of O'Hara's fictitious place names, among them, "Mountain City" for Frackville, "Gibbsville" for Pottsville and "Lantenengo County" for Schuylkill County. But Zukus is less caustic than O'Hara in the way he depicts his hometown and his characters are from a totally different strata of society.

O'Hara eventually softened in his attitude toward Pottsville but, in his earlier years, he savaged it as "that God-awful town." He was just as scathing writing about the townspeople who were his favorite literary targets — old-money aristocrats, coal magnates, Pottsville and Schuylkill Country Club members.

"Appointment in Samarra" outraged Pottsville, not only because of the way it portrayed the city but also because of its sexual content.

In the current "anything goes" culture, it's doubtful that Zukus' frequent use of obscenities and graphic descriptions of sex in "The Fourth House" will produce a similar reaction in Frackville, but he worries that what he says about the town may produce a backlash.

After expressing warm feelings for Frackville during a telephone interview from his home in Red Bank, N.J., he added that describing it as "a black silt hamlet," "block aft er block of r ow houses" and "a town where time stood still" was calling it as he saw it. He also stressed that anyone walking its streets, especially the business section of Lehigh Avenue with its bulldozed lots and empty storefronts, would reach the same conclusions he did.

Frackville, unlike Pottsville, never had a local aristocracy or exclusive clubs. The most prominent social organization always was and still is the Elks.

For the most part, the central characters in "The Fourth House" come from the present-day middle class, the descendants of miners whose hands were always grimy from their occupation. Zukus, while not sugarcoating the people that he writes about, treats them with more respect than O'Hara did the powerful and privileged in "Appointment in Samarra."

The main character in Zukus' book is Jordan Matino, a young Philadelphia urologist. When he returns to Mountain City to spend Thanksgiving with his mother, he falls in love with Heather George, t he girl who li ved next door to him when he was growing up. After they decide to marry, their families, lifelong best friends, are strangely unenthusiastic. The couple's search for an answer to the curious reaction uncovers a lifetime of secrets and lies.

Admittedly, I read "The Fourth House" with great anticipation because I grew up in Frackville, although decades earlier than Zukus.

I wasn't disappointed. Zukus has a keen ear for coal region speech patterns and he brings to life a town that still retains remnants of the days when I lived there.

Another reason I found the book absorbing was the fun I had identifying places and people. Frackville's Nice Street is renamed Good Street. When Jordan and Heather have latenight, clandestine sex on the putting green at the home of Stan Burke, Mountain City's "one rich guy," Zukus is obviously referring to real-life Walter Baran.

Occasionally, he uses actual coal region names, including Kerlavage and Nahas. He a lso mentions Th e Fink and The Alley, popular night spots on Route 61 during the 1970s and 1980s.

A connection to Frackville isn't necessary to find the book compelling. I would have read it in one sitting even if I hadn't been familiar with the town. Many of the quirks, attitudes and idiosyncrasies of Frackville that Zukas portrays in his book can be found in small communities everywhere.

In "The Fourth House," Jordan Matino's mother, Opal, is a church organist and his father is not a presence in his life.

Zukus' mother, Dawn Rader Zukus Woratyla, West West Terrace, played the organ at St. Peter's United Church of Christ when she lived in Frackville. His parents divorced when he was a child and his father died while he was still too young to have been influenced by him. When I pointed out the similarities to Zukus and asked if the novel was partly based on his own life, he replied, "Most fiction writers take kernels of reality and then expand on them. They pla y the 'what if' game, meaning what would follow if this or that had happened."

What happened to Zukus after graduating from North Schuylkill High School in 1976 is that he attended Berklee School of Music in Boston, then worked in the arts as an actor, director and frustrated (his word) composer. After marrying, he moved from Boston to Red Bank, where he entered politics as a city councilman and became active in urban and downtown revitalization. In the past three years, he has also ghostwritten some 30 books, most of them memoirs, self-help and business. He and his wife have two sons.

Even Zukus uses the word "weird" to describe the marketing history of "The Fourth House," the only debut novel published by Madison Park Press, an imprint of Book of the Month Club. Publishing mergers and a series of cost-cutting measures made the new owner, Bertelsman, decide to get rid of the Madison Park subsidiary, but the novel can still be ordered from Book of the Month and it s si ster book clubs, Rhapsody, Doubleday, and Literary Guild.

Eventually, it will be sold through bookstores. In the meantime, it's available on Zukus' Web site and at the Lazy Dog Coffeehouse in Minersville, where the author will be on hand from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday for a book-signing and question-and- answer session.

John O'Hara, who died in 1970, turned out dozens of columns and commentaries as well as some 400 short stories and 16 novels and novellas before he died in 1970, but he never did a sequel to "Appointment in Samarra."

Zukus has a long way to go before catching up to O'Hara's output. However, using the same coal region setting but with different characters, he's well on his way to finishing a continuation of "The Fourth House," meaning that, at least where sequels to first novels are concerned, he will soon be one up on the man he considers his literary idol.

(Geier is a correspondent)

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