Appointment in Samarra

by JDP

This short and precise novel rings with clarity of purpose and presentation. O’Hara has a goose to cook and, by the end of the novel, he’s not only given us the recipe, but also instructed us in how to prepare it and held the fork to our mouths while we mutter discontentedly about the size of our portion.

John O’Hara / American / 1934 / 251 pages

John O’Hara is no longer a part of the American canon and that is probably an acceptable thing. His contemporaries wrote better melodrama (Fitzgerald) with fewer words (Hemingway) and his forebears were a bit more adept at the psychological analysis (James) of class-based social relations (Turgenev). O’Hara’s most notable novel, An Appointment in Samarra, fairly explicitly lifts different components from each of these literary luminaries. While I have elsewhere praised authors like Julio Cortázar for their ability to synthesize the styles of others, O’Hara’s calculus is more additive than multiplicative: here he has drafted a pristine and pitch-perfect novel that is impressive in technical capacities, but somewhat lacking in its ingenuity. By virtue of being so short in composition, yet so rollicking in its pace, however, the novel is well worth reading.

Appointment quickly conjures up a cast of characters in the first few pages that gets sparsely, but effectively, rounded out with backstories, revealing dialogues, and internal monologues. The couple at the center of the novel are Julian and Caroline English, young thirty-somethings of auspicious backgrounds yet inauspicious futures. Julian manages a car dealership in the small town of Gibbsville (after having forsaken the inheritance of his father’s medical practice) and Caroline seems to have “settled” by wedding him instead of the numerous other well-qualified suitors who presented themselves to her earlier in life. There is also the small-time mobster Al Grecco who spends the novel running liquor and looking after the boss’ mistress, as well as Lute Fliegler who is, perhaps, the only decent person in the book. Julian gets into trouble at a club party when he throws his drink in the face of a friend and over the course of the next two days, the rest of the inhabitants of Gibbsville quickly ice him out as retribution for the act. His friends abandon him, his dealership loses business, and his wife is terribly angry. If you’re at all familiar with the Arabic fable of the “Appointment in Samarra” after which the novel takes its title, then you can add two and two together and figure out where the novel ends up.

But the way in which we arrive at the conclusion is of some interest. From a structural standpoint, the story lines of Lute, Al, and Julian are kept separate from one another until the Christmas party that brings all three characters into the same room. O’Hara also alternates clipped, spot-on dialogue with longer, lyrical passages and mixes present-day plot with once-upon-a-time flashbacks. Other than rounding out the characters of Julian and Caroline, however, it is not immediately clear what role these presentations of backstory play in the development of the novel. O’Hara was first and foremost a short story writer and, in themselves, these portions of the novel serve as excellent set pieces. Additional techniques worth mentioning include O’Hara’s tendency to insulate rather critical events from the narration (thus, we do not see Julian throw the drink, but are only privy to another character’s account of this), entertaining lists presented to substantiate a characterization (such as the long list of philanthropic groups to which Julian’s father belongs), and painfully incoherent and repetitive internal monologues that emerge from nowhere when characters become either highly emotional or highly intoxicated.

In many respects, the writing is a real treat as well. It is laced with dramatic effect and, oftentimes, clever turns of phrase. Better than Hemingway, O’Hara makes use of a wider palette; better than Fitzgerald, he also knows when to cut it short. Oscillating between terse prose and lyrical descriptions, O’Hara occasionally comes up with a sentence or two that leaves the reader smiling in admiration:

“The worst of that drive was that the sun glare on the snow made you smile before you were ready.”

Contrast this with something along the lines of:

“Our story never ends. You pull the pin out of a hand grenade, and in a few seconds it explodes and men in a small area get killed and wounded. That makes bodies to be buried, hurt men to be treated. It makes widows and fatherless children and bereaved parents. It means pension machinery, and it makes for pacifism in some and for lasting hatred in others. Again, a man out of the danger area sees the carnage the grenade creates, and he shoots himself in the foot. Another man had been standing there just two minutes before the thing went off, and thereafter he believes in God or in a rabbit’s foot.”

Appointment allegedly meditates upon the capriciousness of small town politics, but I am not so sure that this is actually the case. The surface-level narrative of a town turning its back on a violator of its norms is a too-ready interpretation of what really transpires. To begin, practically everyone in the novel is rotten: A cheated on B who slept with C who made a pass at D who was found necking E despite the fact that E’s husband was just in the other room, etc. Other inhabitants of the town seem to have effectively been reintegrated into its social ranks despite having accidentally lit buildings on fire, broken the jaws of their friends, defaulted on their loans, and so on. Julian throws a drink in a man’s face and suddenly the town acts as a collective agent that is hellbent on ostracizing him socially and destroying him financially. I don’t buy it, not completely. A more interesting (and, perhaps, accurate) appraisal of what transpires is that Julian had always had something of an “appointment” and that this was merely the catalyzing event. He literally falls apart after the drink incident, but this must be due just as much to his own paranoid perceptions as it is to the actual complications it creates with his friends. Indeed, by the end of the novel, the chagrined recipient of the drink’s contents asks himself why Julian reacted so hopelessly after the incident. The situation wasn’t that awful.

O’Hara lets the novel down gracefully and, if I’m allowed a banal adjective or two, somewhat poetically. The characters we, as readers, feel attached to are given a few final words and those that we don’t particularly care for are subtly left out. We see that the life of the town goes on and we are somewhat comforted with a loose approximation of satisfaction in the outcome. Usually when I finish a novel, I’m a bit scatterbrained, at least initially. Part of the fun of reading great literature is that you’ve got to collect yourself a bit afterward before you can run off and write a review. With this one, however, my reaction was simply: “Right. Well done.”

My point is that Appointment fires on all pistons, so to speak, and works well as a precisely executed first novel. But although O’Hara went on to write another thirteen books (and over 400 short stories, besides) I can’t say that Appointment whets my appetite for these.

Rating: 4 / 10

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