At the local library, they had a copy of this book with a photograph of John O’Hara on the cover. I hadn’t heard much about O’Hara except that he was from Pottsville, Pennsylvania–which is a place I have a passing familiarity with. The photograph of O’Hara was in black and white–and I thought he looked a little like my grandfather. So, I checked the book out and took it home.
Imagine my surprise as I delved deeper into the novel and could visualize in O’Hara’s prose the sepia toned pictures that used to sit on my grandparents’ end tables! The reader can hear the engines of early model Cadillacs, smell the tobacco, taste the Country Club Cocktails. The mannered society of pre-World War II America is portrayed very richly and with tragic beauty.
Appointment in Samarra was published in 1934 and the sense of time and place is striking. He’s writing about a fictionalized Pottsville (called Gibbsville in the novel) over the course of a few days near Christmas. The main character, Julian English, is a deeply flawed young man who sits uneasily at the fault-lines of Gibbsville society. English is a small town businessman who owns a Cadillac dealership. He’s the classic stereotype of the successful Anglo-Saxon Protestant of early 20th Century America–the American dream fulfilled. He’s not a Catholic, nor is he one of the one of the recent immigrant laborers, nor part of the local gangster community. (You have to admire the layered irony of the Irish-American O’Hara naming his anti-hero ‘English.’) Yet, Julian English is living a farce, largely through his own moral failings. English drinks too much, he’s been bailed out from financial ruin by a local bigger businessman, he cheats on his wife. The tension of a man almost making it–or at his personal breaking point–permeates the novel.
O’Hara’s brilliance is his description, his plotting and his dialogue. As if to showcase the stress within which English lives, the books is broadly broken up into three competing sections–the Country Club bookends the novel with a memorable roadhouse scene in the center. You can hear genuineness in the dialogue all throughout the book, be it the technically mannered speech at the Club or the more ribald conversation at the bar. The reader is transported to every Wedding Reception you’ve ever been to or every dive bar where one realizes that you’re out of your element.
Julian English fails in each one of these locales. He fights and scrapes and violates all sorts of mannered conventions. Perhaps that’s the point of English in O’Hara’s novel–that he’s gone from the heights of society to the depths and he’s a nowhere man. This may be an existential novel about finding and losing oneself. Whatever O’Hara’s motive, Appointment in Samarra is a terrific book. One gets lost in its sense of place and lost in the life of one misguided soul.
To listen to while reading: Not quite sure. I think the Andrews Sisters might fit the bill!