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