Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

"The plot of the novel, which is quite slight, is rather hard to tell, but it concerns a young man and his wife, members of the club set, and how the young man starts off the Christmas 1930 holidays by throwing a drink in the face of a man who has aided him financially.  From then on I show how fear of retribution and the kind of life the young man has led and many other things contribute to his demise.  There are quite a few other characters, some drawn from life, others imaginary, who figure in the novel, but the story is essentially the story of a young married couple in the first year of the depression".  - John O'Hara

Appointment in Samarra is the eighth book I have read for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) - choose a classic from the Americas or the Carribbean.  Originally I had planned on reading A House for Mr. Biswas by the great writer V. S. Naipaul but 140 pages in I wasn't connecting with Mr. Biswas' story.

Appointment in Samarra has been on my radar since early this year when I read Will Schwalbe's very fine memoir The End of Your Life Book Club.  The plot revolves around a reckless and impulsive act commited by a wealthy young man, Julian English.  At a Christmas party he throws a drink into the face of another much wealthier and well connected man, Harry Reilly.  Reilly has done nothing to warrant this behavior except that Julian is sick and tired of having to once again listen to one of Harry's rather boring stories.

And so what interested me about this novel is that we all live by certain norms.  Sure we have fantasies for example of walking off our jobs in the middle of the day and never coming back but we don't do that because after the first hour or two of freedom comes the repurcussions.  How will we be able to list the job on a resume after we pull a stunt like this?  And so my curiousity regarding Appointment in Samarra was what happens after Julian so recklessly disregards the norms?

Harry Reilly is not someone to make an enemy of and Julian owes him alot of money.  Plus Harry is socially well connected in Gibbsville PA where the novel is set.  He has wealthy friends who have been frequenting Julian's Cadillac dealership but when the story about how Julian behaved at the party circulates around town Julian and his wife Caroline begin to lose standing in the community and eventually their financial well being would have taken a hit.  I say eventually because we never get that far.  The novel is set entirely over the 1930 holiday season, about three or four days.  But in those three or four days we learn a great deal about Julian, his wife Caroline,, the snobbish social set they are a part of and Julian's father who Julian has always felt judged by but who in reality is worried about his son.  All of this is leading towards tragedy and I was a bit suprised by the form it took, although I shouldn't have been since we are given clues.

Appointment in Samarra is a rather depressing book which touches on a number of themes.  It's an interesting portrait of a marriage and O'Hara does a good job of  letting us know who Julian and Caroline are, not simply as a couple but as individuals. Appointment in Samarra has been compared to the Great Gatsby and some critics actually prefer this novel.  Having never read the Great Gatsby I can't judge.  John O'Hara's biographer Frank McShane would later say that Appointment in Samarra written ten years after The Great Gatsby and set in 1930 is a novel that belongs to the "hangover generation".  The young people who had a great time living through the jazz age when things were good but didn't build up their defenses when the Great Depression hit.

Appointment in Samarra is well written but I wouldn't say the writing is great and yet it is considered a classic so much so that Harold Bloom included this novel in his history of the Western Canon and Modern Library lists it as one of the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century.  Book lists are very subjective though and so if you are curious you might want to give Appointment in Samarra a try and judge for yourself.