Appointment in Samarra
by John O'Hara (1934)
Vintage (2003)
251 pp

I don’t know much about John O’Hara, other than that during his lifetime he was frequently published in The New Yorker and that of the books he wrote a couple are still frequently brought up, BUtterfield 8 and, his first, Appointment in Samarra. I went into the bookstore looking for BUtterfield 8, but, when it wasn’t there, I opened Appointment in Samarra and found at the beginning this short vignette by Somerset Maugham:

DEATH SPEAKS

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
— W. Somerset Maugham

Well, even though Maugham didn’t write the book, his short story sold me.

I was pleased when I started reading the actual book O’Hara wrote to find that it, too, would have convinced me to buy the book. The first paragraph is frank and written in the kind of clarity I find very attractive:

Our story opens in the mind of Luther L. (L for LeRoy) Fliegler, who is lying in his bed, not thinking of anything, but just aware of sounds, conscious of his own breathing, and sensitive to his own heartbeats. Lying beside him is his wife, lying on her right side and enjoying her sleep. She has earned her sleep, for it is Christmas morning, strictly speaking, and all the day before she has worked like a dog, cleaning the turkey and baking things, and, until a few hours ago, trimming the tree. The awful proximity of his heartbeats makes Luther Fliegler begin to want his wife a little, but Irma can say no when she is tired.

The Flieglers serve to introduce us to Gibbsville, the Pennsylvania community. The title and short vignette would never have led me to think this story took place in Pennsylvania; honestly, the title and the vignette would never have led me to think of anything that takes place in this story, except, well, death. It is the early 1930s. The Great Depression is affecting everyone, but most of the characters in this novel are among the least affected. They have money trouble, but it seems that most of the problems are social. No one is starving.

Notwithstanding the fine introduction to the Fliegler’s sex life, we move quite quickly past them and arrive at a holiday party where “[e]veryone was drinking, or had just finished a drink, or was just about to take one.” In this scene we see O’Hara stretch out and employ his larger skills of social observation and criticism, which is probably the reason he was so often in The New Yorker. We meet people who will never again appear in the novel, but the scene is a nice collage of the secrets that live under the surface of this small town’s society:

The curious thing about her was that four of the young men had had work-outs with her off the dance floor, and as a result Constance was not a virgin; yet the young men felt so ashamed of themselves for yielding to a lure that they could not understand, in a girl who was accepted as not attractive, that they never exchanged information as to Constance Walker’s sex life, and she was reputed to be chaste.

It is at at this holiday part that we meet the principle character, Julian English, a relatively successful Cadillac dealer in his early thirties. He and his wife Caroline are members of the Gibbsville social elite. Julian is getting drunk and is becoming increasingly upset by the boisterous Harry Reilly.

Julian English sat there watching him, through his eyes that he permitted to appear sleepier than they felt. Why, he wondered, did he hate Harry Reilly? Why couldn’t he stand him? What was there about Reilly that caused him to say to himself: “If he starts one more of those moth-eaten stories I’ll throw this drink in his face.” But he knew he would not throw this drink or any other drink in Harry Reilly’s face. Still, it was fun to think about it.

And think about it he does. His imagination runs freely and he pictures his drink flowing down Harry Reilly’s body, under his clothes. We move away from Julian for a moment to focus, again, on the crowd. Suddenly, there is a clamor. Apparently Julian English has just thrown his drink in Harry Reilly’s face.

On their way home from the party, Constance is bitter and embarrassed. How are they going to get overe this. Worse, Julian owes Harry money. We know from the vignette how this story is going to end, and at this point I was very interested in how we would get there.

From here, though, the novel branches out even more, as we meet a gangster and his clever lackey. Their role is central to the plot, but instead of keeping the book moving, we go into their pasts. The book, which started well for me — I was well into it when the drink hit Harry Reilly’s face — becomes a series of digressions and social criticism, particularly of the middle class forever striving to outdo their neighbors (remember the Flieglers?). While the digressions could be entertaining, they stalled the narrative so much that, to me, they took away from the story rather than add to it. And they get longer — much longer. Each time a new back-story began, for whichever character (central or side), I cringed, wondering when the story would move on.

About three-quarters of the way through the book, I was fully annoyed. Before starting this book, I wanted to get a feel for O’Hara, and in my research I read such statements that compared him to Henry James, Dorothy Parker, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. All overstatements. Despite the lengthy treks into the past, this work lacked the psychological acuity of Henry James. Despite the social criticism, often rendered with clarity, it lacked the sophisticated wit and penetration of Dorothy Parker. And this is no great examination of America and, thus, lacked the grand scope of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

So, for the last part of the book, I was fighting it quite a lot. Still, I ended up with neutral feelings for it. Why neutral and not negative? Well, there is a great deal of skill here. It just feels undisciplined and a bit self-satisfied. And despite the increasing rancor I felt toward the book, it still had moments of insight and emotional depth, and such passages stripped away my ho-hum-ness:

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. Another man sees human brains for the first time and locks up the picture until one night years later, when he finally comes out with a description of what he saw, and the horror of his description turns his wife away from him . . .

The book’s strengths and weaknesses balanced together for me, leaving me not altogether fulfilled but not altogether disappointed. Still, I’ll not be moving on to BUtterfield 8, unless someone has some serious persuasion skills.

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