Appointment in Samarra ~ A Capsule Book Review


Appointment in Samarra ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

American author John O’Hara lived from 1905 to 1970. His 1934 novel, Appointment in Samarra, is his best-known and most important work. It’s set in 1930 in the small (under 25,000) town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. It chronicles three days in the lives of Julian English, 29, and his lovely wife, Caroline Walker English, 31. Julian owns a Cadillac dealership; Caroline is a society matron and gadabout. They are looked upon as “quality” in the town, meaning they have plenty of money (they both come from a background of prosperity) and have lots of time to drink and socialize with the country club set.

Julian English has everything a person might want and is, of course, good-looking and polished, but he has plenty of problems, not the least of which is that he is an alcoholic, although that word is never used in the novel. While the Depression still hasn’t taken its toll on Gibbsville (it’s 1930, remember), it’s bound to get a whole lot worse and Julian is worried about his Cadillac dealership going bankrupt. Certain things are expected of a man like Julian, and failure isn’t one of them. (If he fails, he’ll have to account to his snooty, physician father.) Also, Julian has a fidelity problem; although he has an attractive wife, he can’t seem to stay away from the other women. (Casual infidelity does seem to be a hallmark of this group of people.)

At a Christmas dance at the country club, a very drunk Julian has a set-to with a “friend” named Harry Reilly and throws a drink in his face, blacking his eye with ice in the drink. Word spreads quickly about the impulsive act, and the sad truth for Julian is that most people are sympathetic to Harry Reilly and consider him (Julian) an ass. This is just the first step in a brief downward spiral for Julian that culminates in a surprising (for those unfamiliar with the ending) act of desperation.

Appointment in Samarra was considered “frank” when it was published in the 1930s, but is, of course, mild by the trashy standards of today and even by the Peyton Place standards of the 1950s. In the 1930s John O’Hara was chronicling his own times, as John Updike did (with much more sexual explicitness) thirty or forty years later with novels like Couples and Rabbit, Run. It’s a fascinating piece of Americana (easy to read at 240 pages) and is still so highly regarded more than eighty years after its publication that it’s on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred best novels of the twentieth century.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

One thought on “Appointment in Samarra ~ A Capsule Book Review

  1. Good Evening Mr. Kopp, Another well chosen author for a book review since this author John O’Hara is not read here in our small town very much. The library is pulling some of his books off the shelf.
    My mother’s friends liked John O’Hara books with their fascination of men of good looks and sensuous body like Paul Newman.(as in a movie we saw together too many years ago. His books seem to bring a type of life many women might relish if their own marriages or relationships become like boring and they prefer the men who are socially sexy men ;ole O’Hara mentions in his writings. .
    There is a hardness to this fascination women of my mother’s age had with movie idol male actors as if they form the character would enter their fantasy world at night. Fetching possibly by, remembering the days when she or any female born in 1922 lived through the wild life-drinking-fast cars-good night spent out hitting some clubs to dance. Of course all this dream world crashed during the 2nd World War, when the male of their dreams was drafted and left for Normandy-Omaha Beach. Being left, the man is killed in the battle of Omaha Beach with his men, one the women with three young children must scrape to work, to dress, to fill the empty hours. Loneliness for an adult. tired of 7 days a week with the kids she drops them at her mothers. The bars become her world Friday and Saturday Nights, and drinks come quickly and her cognizance of family becomes lost with the booze and the night life that doesn’t end until the next morning. That is my view of a woman caught in the glamour and frenzy of wanting a male that probably is a louse and the affair short lived. Joke on her family, she is pregnant with her fourth child. atk

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