John O'Hara's The Farmers Hotel (1951) is one of my go-to, rushing-out-the-door-grab-a-paperback reads. Despite having read it a half dozen times, I look forward to reading it a half dozen more. But, given the plot, why?
In The Farmers Hotel, a handful of strangers are stranded in rural Pennsylvania. A sudden snowfall traps the group in the titular hotel - ironically, the first day that the hotel is officially 'open'. The owner and his tiny staff (including his 'Magical Negro' bartender) play host to a group of misfits from all walks of society: two upper-class lovers are returning from a cheeky weekend of adultery, a sleazy showman and his two stripping "twin" performers and, last of all, a brash truck driver with a chip on his shoulder.
For the most part - nothing happens. Mr. O'Hara's book is largely a study in dialogue, as the strangers awkwardly feel one another out. As the storm continues, barriers begin to come down, and the individuals slowly creep out of their shells (and stereotypes) and begin to bond. The tension is all social: an angry trucker and a posh twit? Will they blend? But Mr. O'Hara captures each character's voice - and depth - to an extent that it is hard not to care. The reader feels their discomfort, relief and, when tragedy strikes, their remorse.
And there is tragedy. Although 99% of this book is pure chit-chat: pouring drinks and making sandwiches, the final, sudden 1% is hideous and striking. Mr. O'Hara builds the hotel as a shelter - a safe haven from both the storm and propriety; a place where the characters all grow comfortable and warm. But that shelter can't last forever, and when they re-enter the world, Mr. O'Hara uses a physical shock as a way of slapping the characters (and reader) back to reality. In pockets and exceptional circumstances, amazing things can happen. But the outside world has a nasty way of bringing things back to the status quo.
John D. MacDonald's Condominium (1977) also plays with the idea of a safe haven gone sour. The Golden Sands condominiums are a paradise. A giant tower of fully-serviced homes, set right on the luxurious Florida coastline. Golden Sands - like the other complexes all up and down the beach - is packed with people from all over the United States, all enjoying their retirement years in luxury.
Except, of course, they aren't. Condominium reads like an angry annual from Consumer Reports, with Mr. MacDonald gleefully poking holes in every aspect of the condominium lifestyle. Financially, the condominiums are a disaster. The property market is about to crumble and the condo owners are trapped in inescapable contracts, contracts that many owners cannot afford. Socially, Golden Sands is also a land of despair. Every resident used to be important. They used to be business owners, political shakers and small-town big-wigs. But they've all bought into the dream of eternal youth and left their homes, only to find themselves tiny peas in an inconsequential pod. The native Floridians resent them, and their peers in the other condos seem like bad reflections. Ecologically, Mr. MacDonald points out the damage done by the developers to the local environments - old-growth groves destroyed, animals wiped out and the terrain irrevocably altered.
Condominium was billed as the best-selling MacDonald's "non-genre" epic, but for his regular readers, many familiar archetypes appear. There's a wise old millionaire (the savvy businessman in his penthouse, who treats men like men and doesn't take money seriously), the conniving developer, the grizzled old construction who needs to keep busy, the drunk, the bright young engineer who is smart, weather-beaten and secretly romantic (invariably the protagonist), and even the successful professionals who succumb to adultery (another MacDonald staple - the ruined 'perfect' marriage). This cast of hundreds populates Golden Sands, crawling around the building like so many angst-ridden ants.
MacDonald gives every character short shrift, preferring to focus the story on the overall system rather than any one individual. The reader learns about the economics of the situation in painstaking detail: time that would have been better spent making the characters memorable. When the hurricane inevitably comes (as telegraphed from the book's first pages), even it is predictable. The bad guys drown, the good guys swim as nature washes the slate suspiciously clean.
Condominium is particularly frustrating when compared to its two peer groups. The first would be other John MacDonald novels. In other books - The Empty Trap, The Crossroads, One More Sunday - he manages to bring complex systems to life without losing the characters at the center. And over two decades before Condominium, MacDonald wrote Murder in the Wind - another novel using a storm as its agent of change. Despite being a quarter of the length of Condominium, Murder in the Wind still brought out more in its characters.
The second point of comparison would be the other disaster novels of the era - from Arthur Hailey's Airport (1968) to Frank Robinson's The Glass Inferno (1974). Disaster made for bestsellers - and successful movies. But despite lurking towards the tail end of the trend, Condominium is a fairly lackluster example. Despite MacDonald's sermonising, the hurricane in Condominium never has the same feeling of menace. And its (rather convenient) ability to sort out the evil in man's nature minimises any sense of tragedy. There's no heroism in Condominium, just furtive relief: the storm wiped out an ugly building filled with bitter people and the general sentiment is that it did everyone a favour.