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John O’Hara: Appointment in Samarra

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 (1934).  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 adn 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 theirpasts.  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.

12 thoughts on “John O’Hara: Appointment in Samarra

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Butterfield 8 is better but has the same issues you found off-putting here. His short stories are apparently his strong suit, but not having read more than a couple I’m not equipped to make that call.

  2. leroyhunter says:

    I quite liked this one Trevor, I read it immediately after Revolutionary Road and I remember thinking it didn’t suffer massively in the comparison. And unlike Lee, I much preferred this to BUtterfield 8. I didn’t see O’Hara creating digressions so much as building up a picture of the town and its society that I found pretty convincing.

    Those comments you read comparing O’Hara to James, Fitzgerald etc weren’t from himself by any chance? I believe that was the kind of statement he was prone to make. He genuinely believed he was the great overlooked master of American letters in the 20th century, and was quite a bitter individual as a result (how unusual for a writer!).

  3. John Self says:

    Let me complete the triangle begun by Lee and leroy, by saying that I somewhat preferred this to BUtterfield 8 (that gimmicky upper case U, reflecting the telephone area codes of the time, doesn’t actually have any importance in the book), but had mixed feelings on both. In fact I am tempted to say that I liked Appointment in Samarra quite a lot, until I reread my review and realised what shortcomings I saw in it. BUtterfield 8, which I read quite recently, had many nice things in it but generally seemed too strung out and thin to constitute a decent novel – lots of characters explored, a central story of sorts, but a certain lack of focus.

    If you look at the comments below my review, Trevor and Lee, you’ll see one or two big O’Hara fans making recommendations among his other work. It seems widely accepted though that the first two novels we’ve mentioned are his best – in which case I don’t think I’ll be rushing to explore the rest of his canon. Except maybe the Hollywood stories, which I think came highly recommended by more than one source.

  4. Trevor says:

    Those comments you read comparing O’Hara to James, Fitzgerald etc weren’t from himself by any chance?

    No, though I did read how disappointed he was each year when he didn’t win the Nobel Prize. Poor O’Hara!

    John, thanks for explaining what that upper-case U means! After my overall disappointment in this one, I didn’t want to read BUtterfield 8 to find out.

  5. Ouch! You young guys are making me feel my age — my first phone number as a child was SHerwood 34047 (see, I still remember it — note the Robin Hood echo that it introduces). For those of you who are too wet behind the ears to appreciate it, the “name” of your exchange was a signifcant part of determining status. And certainly BUtterfield 8 was about as good as you could get.

    Which doesn’t mean that I am going to read John O’Hara. I’ve read some of his New Yorker stuff and he is an American author that I am willing to give a pass. I do like reading reviews about his work, however (better than reading the books, from my point of view) so do keep it up Trevor.

  6. Trevor says:

    I do like reading reviews about his work, however (better than reading the books, from my point of view) so do keep it up Trevor.

    It’ll be many years, if ever, Kevin, before I dig into another O’Hara. This one just didn’t work for me, and there are too many other things to read right now. For one thing, I loved Fante, and I still haven’t read the rest of his books! For another, I still haven’t read a single one of Sam Selvon’s Moses books, and I’ve been meaning to since your reviews appeared (two years ago, now!).

  7. Lee Monks says:

    Ask The Dust is certainly a book to revisit time and again.

  8. Phillip says:

    Did you know that Appointment was selected as one of the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the Century?
    I don’t agree with some of their choices, though it’s a valuable guide. Some little-known but quite deserving books are included. I don’t think the O’Hara should have been one of them.
    However, his “Over the River and Through the Woods” belongs in any anthology of the best American short stories of the century.

  9. I enjoyed Appointment in Samarra but too often I felt O’Hara was playing around, telling the reader, you know I can write and so do I, so you’ll take whatever I give you. Still, at its best the book depicts the pain of dealing simultaneously with social mores and one’s own demons. Ask the Dust, to me, was far better … less nuanced, perhaps, but a more engaging read.

  10. Sheila Engh says:

    I’ve been reading John O’Hara for about 55 years. I read many of his short stories before ever reading a novel and the first novel I read was A Rage to Live. The novels simply aren’t as good as the short stories. But the short stories are great. I mean “great” as in very, very, very good, not “great” as in “wow, cool”.

    I think he is much neglected and ought to be better know now, or at least his work should be. He was a jerk, himself. But then, so was Leo Tolstoy.

  11. John O’Hara’s best novels, it seems to me, are Appointment in Samarra and Butterfield 8. His letters reveal he was not all that pleased with Samarra when he had finished it. By the time he wrote From the Terrace — nearly a generation later — he believed he deserved the Nobel Prize. He was too good a novelist for the antics he pulled; but then I think he was aware of this. This is the crucial question concerning his status. If anyone doubts his abiding humanity, though, I suggest you read a short but profoundly moving short story valled “Bread Alone”.

    Finally, O’Hara had the respect of a number of his fellow novelists, Richard Wright, for one. That’s equal to the Nobel.

  12. Trevor says:

    I appreciate your defense of O’Hara here, James. I have to be honest and say that once I put up this review I stopped thinking about him and haven’t fostered any thoughts of revisiting him, but I will certainly take you up on your recommendation to read “Bread Alone.”

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