"Appointment in Samarra" is a fast-paced, blackly comic depiction of the rapid decline and fall of Julian English. English is part of the social elite of his 1930s American hometown but from the moment he impetuously throws a cocktail in the face of one of his powerful business associates his life begins to spiral out of control - taking his ...
"Appointment in Samarra" is a fast-paced, blackly comic depiction of the rapid decline and fall of Julian English. English is part of the social elite of his 1930s American hometown but from the moment he impetuously throws a cocktail in the face of one of his powerful business associates his life begins to spiral out of control - taking his loving but troubled marriage with it.
In 'All That Is', James Salter lets a young publisher explain:
"But I don't normally like a writer to give me too much of a character's thoughts and feelings. I like to see them, hear what they say, and decide for myself. The appearance of things. I like dialogue. They talk and you understand everything. Do you like John O'Hara?"
I tip my hat to both masters.
May 1, 2009
Appointment in Samarra
This book is John O?Hara?s critically-acclaimed novel about a young businessman?s self-destruction. Set in a small town in Pennsylvania in 1930 during the Prohibition Era, the book covers 48 hours in the life of Julian English, an influential and attractive Cadillac dealer. From Christmas Eve through December 26th, Julian English and his wife, Caroline, go from one party to another. Julian drinks far too much at each social engagement, and his behavior goes from bad to worse.
The narrative is straightforward, starting off with a single impulsive drunken act which sets in motion a train of events culminating in the protagonist?s ruin. O?Hara was a journalist before he tried his hand at fiction. O?Hara said that he was trying to accurately record an era in his novels. Indeed, his writing style in Appointment in Samarra is very nearly expository. However, the book is filled with subtleties. If one reads carefully, there are hints that English?s downward spiral started years earlier. There are also implications that the destructive forces in English?s life are manifold ? that drunkenness is just the end stage. In one very brief passage, the book?s traditional third person narration abruptly switches to the stream-of-consciousness of the protagonist's wife, which was a highpoint in the book for me. For a few pages, the reader is inside the head of the much-wronged and much-loved wife.
O?Hara is a master at character development ? even the minor characters in this book are surprisingly complex and nuanced. O'Hara focuses intermittently on three very minor characters, serving both to counterpoint English?s behavior and to give the barest hint of what is really going on with English. The book also has the best epigram I've seen in awhile. The epigram is Somerset Maugham's retelling of a middle eastern folktale about a man who has a chance encounter with Death in the marketplace. Death makes a threatening gesture at the man, who immediately asks his employer to loan him a horse so he can ride to Samarra in an effort to avoid Death. The employer later sees Death and asks why she threatened his servant. Death answers, "Oh, that wasn't a threat. That was just my surprise at seeing your servant still here. You see, I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."
The downside of this book is that the dialogue is dated. O?Hara used expressions that were current in 1930. For today?s readers, the dialogue may seem almost caricatured. Similarly, O?Hara used a few racially-derogatory and ethnically-derogatory adjectives which will certainly offend the majority of today?s readers. The dated and politically incorrect language earn this otherwise five-star book a four-star rating.
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