Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

Appointment in Samara
John O’Hara
1934, U.S.

I finished reading Appointment in Samarra this morning, as part of a readalong hosted by Meredith (Dolce Bellezza) and Tom (Wuthering Expectations), and find I am still working my way through my own thoughts about it. I feel at a disadvantage in approaching the text as I have read very little from the time period, save a dozen or so Agatha Christies, are those are really not of the same vein as O’Hara’s novel. Even the era is largely unknown to me (outside of the music), set in December 1930 towards the start of what today’s reader knows will be a long Great Depression (but when the novel’s characters still hope that ‘next year’ will be better), and the literature written in the time is even less familiar. By and large, I have not (yet) read O’Hara’s contemporaries.

And yet, there’s a familiarity there, a familiarity that comes from O’Hara’s inclusion of small details of everyday life, the vivid characters that populate the novel, and even from the Pennsylvania coal country setting (which is not so far removed from my midwestern town just outside the edges of Appalachia). It is set in a time and place removed from my own, but by using small, but specific details, O’Hara grounds it in a way that makes me feel I know the place, the characters.

On the face of it, the story is simple enough: it centers around the lives of Julian and Caroline English, their social set, and those nearby who observe or intersect with the Englishs’ everyday lives. The inciting event: Julian throws his drink in the face of Harry Reilly at a holiday party, breaking social taboos and apparently triggering a cascade of ever more self-destructive behavior. And yet it is more than just that. Although set tightly primarily over a period of four days, with glances backwards, and in the final chapter, a look forwards, the ends are not all neatly tied. Real life is messy, and this story is messy: the plot, the characters, the resolutions. This is part of what makes the story so engaging, I think.

Indeed, I find the whole story very real. Sure, to say that throwing a drink in someone’s face will lead to spiral of self-destruction, may sound over-dramatic (especially in an era when all social conventions seem to have been thrown out the window), but I think the truth is, the drink incident–the party–is really entering Julian’s story in medias res. It is not that there is necessarily some specific preceding incident that explains this social crime, but the build-up of Julian’s character to the place where he loses all self-control (if he ever had any) seems to have been an ongoing circumstance. As the novel progresses and we learn more of his character, his past decisions, and his lack of consideration for others (I believe in 21st century terms we would say he has low “emotional intelligence”), it seems apparent that while there may not be an easy explanation for Julian’s actions, the pieces were all there for his self-destruction, and this is just the form it happened to take.

On the other hand, while the story centers around Julian, there are so many other characters there, and his self-destruction spirals out to encompass–or at least impact–many of them. Caroline, is fleshed out as much as Julian and drawn with real sympathy. Lute Fliegler is Julian’s employee, and I am still not sure what to make of the fact that his point of view bookends the novel. Does the destruction of Julian open a way for Lute? Helene Holman and Al Greco both have encounters with Julian that appear to completely change their life trajectories–and yet, we don’t know precisely where. It is yet another nod to reality: any given person’s story only ends with their death; while they live what’s next may always be unknown.

I decided to read Appointment in Samarra almost on a whim: only the day before I read about the readalong, my dad had asked if I were familiar with “Samarra,” and then recited the W. Somerset Maugham retelling that is the epigraph for O’Hara’s novel. He had read it somewhere recently (not in O’Hara), and thought I might know it. When I saw the readalong announced, it seemed inevitable that I must join in, and I am happy I did. It is a novel I feel I could come back to, and perhaps explore other of O’Hara’s writing as well.