Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

First published in 1934, Appointment in Samarra was the debut novel of the American writer, John O’Hara. In short, it charts the rapid downfall and self-destruction of thirty-year-old Julian English, a successful businessman who lives in the fictionalised town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. As a commentary on the shallowness of a particular stratum of American society, it is very strong, particularly in its depiction of the rather skewed values that drive the main protagonist’s actions and behaviours.

On the surface of things, Julian English appears to have everything going for him. He runs a well-established Cadillac dealership in Gibbsville, has plenty of contacts with the town’s movers and shakers, and is married to a beautiful wife who remains faithful to him. Julian and Caroline English are part of the prestigious Lantenengo Street set who hang out at the local Country Club, a place where the preeminent social milieu is clearly evident.

The smoking room crowd always started out with a small number, always the same people. The Whit Hofmans, the Julian Englishes, the Froggy Ogdens and so on. They were the spenders and drinkers and socially secure, who could thumb their noses and not have to answer to anyone except their own families. There were about twenty persons in this group, and your standing in the younger set of Gibbsville could be judged by the assurance with which you joined the nucleus of the smoking room crowd. By three o’clock everyone who wanted to had been in the smoking room; the figurative bars were let down at about one-thirty, which time coincided with the time at which the Hofmans and Englishes and so on had got drunk enough to welcome anyone, the less eligible the better. (p. 9)

However, underneath that outwardly respectable exterior, Julian harbours a self-destructive streak, something that possibly stems from the nature of his family background – particularly the expectations placed on him by his father during the preceding years. Personality-wise, Julian is impetuous, disillusioned and abrupt.

Over the course of three days at Christmas, the novel follows Julian as he drinks too much, picks arguments with the wrong people and generally makes a complete fool of himself. It all starts when Julian throws a drink in the face of Harry Reilly, a man he has never really liked in spite of his standing in Gibbsville.

By Christmas morning, news of the incident is all around the town – a situation made all the more notorious by the fact that Harry appears to have sustained a black eye, presumably from the ice cubes that were present in the drink when it was thrown. As far as Julian sees it, the whole thing is a storm in a teacup. Surely there have been other, more outrageous ‘crimes’ in the past, episodes with more serious consequences than something like this? And anyway, Harry Reilly had it coming to him.

What the hell had he done? he wondered. He had thrown a drink in a man’s face. An especially terrible guy who should have had a drink thrown in his face a long while ago. It wasn’t as if Harry Reilly were a popularity contest winner or something. If most people told the truth they would agree that Reilly was a terrible person, a climber, a noveau riche even in Gibbsville where fifty thousand dollars was a sizeable fortune. Julian thought back over some other terrible things, really terrible things, that people had done in the club without being made to feel they had committed sacrilege. (p. 90)

The trouble is, with Harry Reilly’s influence spreading far and wide, it doesn’t do well to have him as an enemy. Several of Julian’s friends and business associates already owe Harry money, a fact that seems likely to influence their reactions towards Julian in the days that follow. Moreover, the fact that Harry is Catholic puts him in a strong position to call upon the support of the church and other prominent worshippers in the area. As Julian soon discovers, a lucrative business deal with the local undertaker – currently in the market for a prestige hearse – is already at risk of being scuppered, almost certainly as a consequence of his rash actions.

This seemingly small incident represents the beginning of a chain of events which constitute Julian’s fall from grace. Somewhat ironically, the damage caused by each individual misstep could be contained on its own – in other words, if it were a single violation as opposed to one element of a broader pattern of behaviour. Instead, it is the cumulative effect of the fallout that causes the real damage here.

O’Hara does something very interesting in the way he presents the Harry Reilly incident to the reader. Rather than describing what actually happens when Julian throws the drink at Harry, O’Hara shows Julian thinking about throwing it – not with any serious intentions of doing so, just daydreaming about it at this point. In fact, it is only through the responses of other people after the event that we get to hear about the incident itself. As a consequence, the very act of Julian throwing the drink seems to be magnified, which only adds to its impact and notoriety.

Something similar happens with the second of Julian’s missteps when, once again, the fine details of the episode occur off-camera, a technique that lends a degree of ambiguity to Julian’s actions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, interested observers assume the worst, a situation which leaves Julian feeling the heat from multiple angles – mainly from his wife, Caroline, and the powerful mobster, Ed Charney, whose louche mistress was the target of Julian’s attention that night.

As everything starts to unravel for Julian, we learn more about the early years in his life, particularly the relationship with his father, William Dilworth, a doctor and upstanding member of the Gibbsville community. As he came to young Julian’s rescue after the latter had been caught shoplifting, William English wondered whether the sins of his own father had come home to roost with the old man’s grandson.

William Dilworth English was thinking of his own life, the scrupulous, notebook honesty; the penny-watching, bill-paying, self-sacrificing honesty that had been his religion after his own father’s suicide. And that was his reward: a son who turned out to be like his grandfather, a thief. (p. 164) 

While Julian never stole anything again, he was left feeling a constant disappointment to his father especially as far as his career and the management of money were concerned. There was a time when Dr English wanted his son to join (and ultimately take over) his own prestigious medical practice – but Julian had other ideas back then, preferring instead to take advantage of the boom years of the 1920s.

Appointment in Samarra is an interesting look at the social elite of Pennsylvania in the early 1930s, the sort of people who had become accustomed to a certain standard of living, viewing it as a kind of entitlement as opposed to something that needed to be earned. The novel is full of little observations on the social codes of the Lantenengo Street milieu. While the town’s manual workers are still feeling the pinch from the decline in demand for coal (the local anthracite mining industry has struggled to recover from two lengthy strikes in the ‘20s), there is still plenty of money in evidence amongst the Gibbsville Country Club set.

Tonight’s dinner, as almost every guest was able to tell at a glance, was the club’s two-fifty dinner. This was a club dinner dance, and all members were invited. At a dinner such as the Ammermanns’, the hostess could arrange with the steward for the dollar-fifty (roast chicken), the two-dollar (roast turkey), or the two-fifty (filet mignon), and this had been the filet mignon dinner. The Ammermanns had just that much money, and their position in Gibbsville was just that certain and insecure, that they had to give the best of everything. (pp. 82-83)

The book is full of observations like this, fine details which add a sense of authenticity to the world O’Hara is portraying here.

The novel’s title comes from a brief parable by W. Somerset Maugham, a sort of retelling of an ancient cautionary tale. Maugham’s piece forms the novel’s epigraph – and with the benefit of hindsight, it seems a very fitting scene-setter for the book.

Appointment in Samarra is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

33 thoughts on “Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Interesting review, Jacqui. I’ve never read O’Hara, but this sounds like a fascinating and nuanced tale. It’s interesting how a single action can cause a string of awful consequences. I imagine that still happens nowadays, particularly for people in the media and the like, and with the Twitter storms you hear about. The setting may have changed but people are still very judgemental and self-interested!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think that’s one of the things I like about these modern classics. Even though the circumstances and broader context may have changes, many of the underlying behaviours and emotions remain largely the same. It’s an interesting one from a technical perspective, too – I’m glad I put it on my Classics Club list.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    This sounds very good. Stories of people’s lives comming apart seem to be forever fascinating. I find them hard to read sometime. They can be depressing and disturbing but they also can be compelling.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I agree. It’s almost like watching a car crash in slow motion. You know it’s going to devastating for everyone involved, and yet it’s very hard to look away.

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    Really love the sound of this book. Although the story is somewhat different it puts me in mind of Desperate Characters by Paula Fox, which I read following your lovely review of it. Great review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! You know, I hadn’t thought of that connection at all — but now you mention it I can see why it came to mind, especially with the catalytic effect of that first incident with the drink. It sets off a chain reaction of sorts where everything just spirals out of control. I think you’d find it an interesting book, particularly in terms of the period and characterisation.

      Reply
  4. Guy Savage

    I really liked the author’s Ten North Frederick. Both books are set in Gibbsville and are connected. i bought a copy after Ten North Frederick which you would like, I think.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I do recall you reviewing that O’Hara a couple of years ago, so it’s interesting to hear the two books are connected – that’s definitely another point in its favour. I think you’ll like this whenever you get a chance to read it. The stuff about the Country Club set is priceless and very well observed.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it still has some relevance to today’s society, for sure. Do you remember that time a year or so ago when everyone seemed to be reading It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis and talking about parallels with the Trump phenomenon? That’s another book from same period of American culture. Isn’t it funny how everything seems to come around again given time?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I can see why you might have thought it a Western. The title has that ring to it, doesn’t it? A showdown at Samarra. It’s very good, and definitely worth reading if you happen to chance upon another copy during your travels.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yates is a good comparison, I think. It did remind me of some of his writing – in fact, I was saying as much to Ian Curtin on Twitter yesterday afternoon. Julian has that tendency for self-destruction you often see in Yates’ male characters. This predates Yates by about 30 years, so I’m wondering if it might have been an influence on his work (maybe along with John Cheever). Anyway, it’s a very good book. I think you’d like it.

      Reply
  5. 1streading

    I thought I associated O’Hara with a particular novel (I hadn’t heard of this one) but he doesn’t seem to have written that one famous novel that everyone knows so I’m possibly kidding myself. This sounds well worth reading though, and quite accomplished for a first novel.

    Reply
    1. banff1972

      I confused John O’Hara with Sherwood Anderson. No idea why. Probably because I’ve never read either of them. Do you think it’s weird that I am mad for books about the UK in the 30s but American books from the same period often leave me cold?

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        It’s easy to get various authors mixed up every now and again. I always get confused between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Nathanael West in spite of the fact that they lived in completely different eras! And no, I don’t think your ambivalence towards American books from the 1930s is weird at all (even if you do hail from that side of the pond). I don’t read much in the way of American literature from this period myself. The political and cultural landscapes of Europe were so interesting at the time – hence my penchant for British and European lit from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Personally, I’m probably more interested in reading about America in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s probably a combination of Richard Yates and the Mad Men effect, but I do find that period rather fascinating, possibly as a result of all the sociopolitical changes that were taking place at the time!

        Reply
        1. banff1972

          Yes, it’s interesting how we glom onto certain periods: some things just speak to us more than others. Though I also find that the more I learn the more interesting something gets, so perhaps I should give books that don’t seem immediately appealing more of a chance. And yet you can’t read everything…

          Reply
          1. JacquiWine Post author

            I sometimes wonder if I’m getting into a bit of a rut by reading so many books by British writers from the mid 20th century. That said, I rarely seem to tire of them, so maybe that’s okay. There’s also the thing where reading one book can lead to another – either another book by the same writer or a different one operating in the same ballpark/territory. That’s probably how I discovered Mollie Panter-Downes, through comparisons with some of Elizabeth Taylor’s work.

            Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      I think he’s known primarily for this one and his second novel, BUtterfield 8, which was made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor. There are also some short stories that seem to be well regarded. As you say, Samarra is definitely worth reading, especially if you’re ever thinking of doing another American literature month!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I often find that I forget loads of things about a book’s plot or narrative! It’s the overall mood or feeling that tends to stay with me – how I felt about the writing or the characters as I was reading the book or the atmosphere it evoked. All the other details tend to fade over time, especially if it’s a book that I haven’t written up.

      I’ve made a note to drop by and read your review of this at some point over the next few days. I’m looking forward to seeing what you said about it at the time. :)

      Reply
  6. madamebibilophile

    This sounds really interesting Jacqui and this author is completely unknown to me, so thank you for the introduction :-) Like Emma, I thought it sounded reminiscent of Yates, which is always a good thing!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. I can’t recall exactly how I came across this one, although it may well have been on one of those ‘decades’ tables in the Piccadilly branch of Watersones where they display fiction from the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s etc. I often hover around those tables, gazing forlornly at the novels from my favourite era. Philip Larkin’s A Girl in Winter came from there, as did The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. Anyway, I got it because I thought it sounded a bit Richard Yates-y. Luckily that turned out to be fairly right!

      Reply
      1. banff1972

        Me too! I think should have more range, read different things, etc. But then, what am I trying to do? Win a prize from some certainly non-existent body of judges?

        Reply
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  9. Nathanael Webster

    I read Apointment in Samarra in the summer of 2017 and was amazed that it exposed how wrongheaded the current political narrative is in America, and it was written more than 80 years ago. Gibbsville is the fictional version of the real city of Pottsville, PA, and Pottsville’s population peaked in the 1930s and has been declining since. Coal mining has never been glamorous, and even 80 years ago coal companies were using foreign workers in the mines, in this case Catholic Polish immigrants, as locals wanted no part of working the mines. And O’Hara lets the reader know what Gibbsville thinks of the social status of the poor Poles. I find it ironic that the grand children of these shunned workers are now wearing MAGA hats and lining up to hear Trump rail on immigrants and praise coal. Pottsville’s current population is about half of what it was when O’Hara wrote Appointment in Samarra – a once solid, vibrant city that has seen industries and people move away, which is now just a town, impacted by so much more than just the decline of coal mining. There is so much going on in this novel besides the alcoholic self-destruction of Julian English.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Nathaneal, for such an interesting comment on the real-life inspiration for Gibbsville and the social context of the day – one that makes me want to revisit the novel to look more closely at the environment you describe. It’s fascinating to note the prescience and relevance of some of these American novels from the 1930s, particularly in light of the whole Trump phenomenon (something I am still struggling to understand myself). As you say, the current political narrative in America is deeply worrying and frightening – and I fear the situation in the UK is no better as chaos and uncertainty seem to be the order of the day. What desperate times we appear to be living in right now…

      Reply

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