A review of Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Appointment in Samarra
by John O’Hara
1934, 2013, US $16, ISBN 978-0-14-310707-1)

Appointment in Samarra, first published in 1934, has been released, with three more of his novels, as a Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition and as an e-book. O’Hara (1905-1970) was a best-selling American author who published fourteen novels, including Pal Joey, which became a well-known musical. BUtterfield 8 and From the Terrace became popular movies. Many of his over-400 short stories were first published in the New Yorker.

Appointment in Samarra, his first novel, begins with an epigraph from a Somerset Maugham story. In the epigraph, the servant of a Baghdad merchant comes back from shopping, begging to borrow the merchant’s horse to take him to Samarra to escape Death, whom he met in the market place, and who made a threatening gesture toward him. The merchant lends him the horse, then goes to the market place and confronts Death, who explains that the gesture was one of surprise at seeing the servant there, since the two of them had an appointment that night – in Samarra.

This story, indicating that our fate is not in our own hands, but is pre-determined, fits the events that befall thirty year old Julian English over Christmas 1930 in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, where he heads a Cadillac dealership. Julian is the town doctor’s son, and has been married to the beautiful Caroline for five years. They have postponed children, and enjoy being members of the upper crust’s country club. It would seem as if Julian has everything in life to make him happy, but even so, he regularly gets drunk at the club. He feels the disapproval of his doctor father, who wanted him to study medicine and take over his practice.

In fact, Julian is typical of many comfortably well-off Americans in 1930, as yet insulated from the ripple effect of the 1929 stock market crash. We are told that anthracite coal mining, the economic foundation of Gibbsville and other Pennsylvania towns, is “in bad shape”. Complacent people, who think of the crash as merely a “strong technical reaction” will be in for a nasty surprise. Julian has borrowed $20,000 from a wealthy local man, Harry Reilly, which he has spent on his lifestyle. Julian dislikes Harry, who is older, not academically educated, Roman Catholic, and a fund of endless stories; Reilly also used to date Caroline. On Christmas Eve at the club, Julian fantasizes about throwing a drink in Harry’s face. He would not actually do it, we are told, because “Harry Reilly now practically owned the Gibbsville Cadillac Motor Car Company, of which Julian is president.” Then, after some interior monologue about the women at the club dance, we hear a club member telling another that, “Julian English just threw a highball in Harry Reilly’s face.”

This drunken lapse is the beginning of Julian’s downward spiral. Hung over on Christmas Day, he nevertheless goes to Reilly’s to apologize, but Harry will not see him. Under the influence of alcohol, Julian commits three more serious faux pas, with a gangster’s girlfriend, a World War I veteran, and a newspaper reporter. Julian does not realize, as the war veterans and the underworld characters do, that life is dangerous and violent and that je can no longer get by on his smooth manners and social position.

Julian’s values are shallow and superficial, but so are those of the society around him. He thinks bitterly about other “really terrible things that people had done in the club without being made to feel that they had committed sacrilege.” This funny passage lists “innumerable vomitings”, instances of “physical combat” between spouses, a fire, and some public nudity and sexual propositions. “The trouble with making yourself feel better by thinking of bad things others have done, is that you are the only one rounding up the bad things,” Julian reflects. For the time being, his damaged reputation is on everybody’s mind.

Having disgraced himself in Gibbsville, which is a very ordinary town of under 25,000 people, why doesn’t Julian leave and start over elsewhere? Off and on, through the novel, he feels a nostalgia for the rural past, leading the reader to think that this would be the time to embrace it, to live a simpler life elsewhere. In fact, Julian pleads with Caroline: “Listen, will you go away with me? Now, this minute?” but Caroline, who doesn’t know all that he has done, refuses. Julian, however, lacks the skills and fortitude to start out on his own away from his home town, where everyone knows him and has liked and respected him. Also, given that America will take a long time to recover economically, his prospects of living elsewhere at the standard to which he has become accustomed, are poor.

The theme that unknown and uncontrollable forces beyond and within oneself determine one’s fate is typical of the “naturalist” school of writers. Among the famous naturalist writers are Emile Zola, Thomas Hardy and Jack London, who show people as biological entities who respond to environmental forces and internal stresses that they do not fully understand and cannot control. O’Hara differs from these earlier naturalist novelists in that he lacks their social conscience, and focuses upon the wealthy, rather than the poor, but his “naturalism” is demonstrated by his blunt style and frank, brutal depiction of human interactions. Naturalists believe that human beings are driven by basic urges like fear, hunger and sex drive. The sex scenes in Zola’s, Hardy’s and O’Hara’s novels were shocking in their day.

How will 21st century readers regard Appointment in Samarra, now that it’s back in print? I found its references dated, and war jarred by the anti-semitism and other ethnic and religious slurs, which, I hope, were there to show the mentality of the seriously flawed characters. Stylistically, too, the novel seemed awkward. In the first eight pages, for instance, at least ten people are mentioned, whom the reader supposes to be important to the story. As it turns out, though, the only significant one is Harry Reilly. We do not meet Julian, the central character, until twelve pages in. Finally, the Maugham epigraph, which takes us to faraway Baghdad, seems too exotic for a novel about self-destructive parochial people. Given that the world is still a dog-eat-dog place full of people living foolish lives, though, many readers may appreciate Appointment in Samarra for its gritty realism.

Ruth Latta’s young adult/teen/nostalgia novel, The Songcatcher and Me (Ottawa, Baico, 2013, $20 Can.) is available from baico@bellnet.ca