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Welcome to The Once Lost Wanderer. The name is derived from two poems: Amazing Grace by reformed slave trader John Newton, and All That is Gold Does Not Glitter by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara (80 down 20 to go)

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

Julian English sat there watching him, through eyes he permitted to appear sleepier than they felt. Why, he wondered, did he hate Harry Reilly?

This is the first time I’ve read Appointment in Samarra or John O’Hara. The book is a modernist novel, third-person narrative of Julian English, a young society man in Middle America, early 1930s.

My Rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars


This novel satisfies 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge, Category #2: A 20th Century Classic (but published before 1967). Appointment in Samarra was published in 1934.

Julian English is a member of the social elite in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. He is the privileged son of a Doctor, an Ivy League graduate, Cadillac dealer, and happily married man – no children. Early in this short novel, you would never guess it is the Great Depression, or Prohibition, for all the money that is represented and all the alcohol that flows at the opening country club party. Julian English fantasizes about throwing his drink in the face Harry Reilly, an wealthy society man English despises, seemingly simply because Reilly is bombastic and popular – presumably due to his high social (financial) standing – that and English is slightly drunk.

Julian English sat there watching him, through eyes he permitted to appear sleepier than they felt. Why, he wondered, did he hate Harry Reilly? What was there about Harry Reilly that caused him to say to himself: "iIf he starts one more of those moth-eaten stories I'll throw this drink in his face."

Unfortunately, English does more than fantasize, though O’Hara reveals it in a very clever way. The omniscient narrator reveals English’s thoughts about throwing his drink in Reilly’s face, but he also seems to talk himself out of it. The next morning, English awakes only slightly hungover. His wife’s cool attitude suggests that he embarrassed himself and her at the party, and English eventually realizes, if not quite remembers, that he did indeed throw his drink in Reilly’s face.

That one act, seems to set off a series of self-destructive actions which cause English’s picture perfect, American dream to quickly unravel.

SPOILER ALERT:

This is the second novel in a row, wherein the main character commits suicide. That is undoubtedly why I didn’t love either. I hate to see people driven to despair, even in fiction. But, like The Heart of the Matter, this novel is well written. I empathized with English and was urging him away from his foolish and destructive path. The setting is a complex era in American history, and O’Hara portrays an intriguing picture of people and lifestyles – that have no relevance for me otherwise. That’s a large part of why I read – to be a student of humanity.

Interesting fact I learned reading this: An REO Speedwagon was an early pickup truck produced by the REO Motor Car Company. I only knew it as the band - never thought about the meaning of the band's name.

And an interesting story behind the title. It comes from a play by W. Somerset Maugham. The appointment - is an appointment with Death. Writer Dorthy Parker showed O'Hara the reference, and he chose to use it for his title. He related that Parker, his publisher, his editor, everybody hated it but O'Hara. I like it, so now there's me.


Have you read Appointment in Samarra? What did you think?
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14 comments:

  1. I didn’t enjoy this book either. I also found Julian’s behavior frustrating to read about. There were a couple of times he could have turned the tide but didn't. But well written, sure… that’s why it is so frustrating because it is so painstakingly depicted.

    I guess the title should have been a clue that the characters would not be able to outrun their fate.

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    1. Indeed regarding the title, which is another reason I suppose I don't love this story. I don't believe we are tied to an inescapable fate. Excellent points. Thanks!

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  2. I've never read this, and it could be too bleak for me, but the appointment aspect reminded me of the opening of Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates, in which Marilyn Monroe (aka Norma Jean) also has a date with Death. Seems that idea has been mined a few times.

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    1. Yeah...and I suppose that means it works. Too fatalistic for my taste, but a compelling concept nonetheless.

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  3. This was one of about 20 O’Hara novels that I took with me when I went to live overseas. What stayed with me about Julian’s story was how flimsy Julian’s sense of self was – talk about feeling no power over events, over life. So, his whole life was shaken up by just a nothing incident in his small narrow milieu. Throwing the drink made him lose face, status, advantage, popularity, everything that he (and everybody else) thought was important. The scary thing about this novel is how ordinary, how plausible it all is. Such delicate lives – in the back of everybody’s mind the dread that nobody can relax a minute in the modern world since a little lapse could make the roof cave in (see Gerald, in Women in Love).

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    1. Julian was his own worst enemy via his own perceived impotence to correct things. Thanks for the feedback.

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  4. Great review, which I'm taking as a bit of a warning to avoid. I don't like stories where the main character commits suicide. Twentieth century classics can be somewhat depressing. From your description, this sounds reminiscent of The Great Gatsby in some ways.

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  5. The ending would be a definite turnoff for me but I was planning to read The Great Gatsby & don't really know much about that book. I like a little bit of redemption in a story - Wuthering Heights, for example. I almost gave up in disgust but it was worth it by the end.

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    1. I felt the same way about Wuthering Heights. I hated most of it, but there was a little bit of redemption in the end, that saved it for me.

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  6. Embarrassingly, this is the first I've heard about this novel and its author. I tend to like a bit of bleakness in my stories, so maybe it'll be worth having a look.

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    1. Yeah, you would probably like it Rob. It's a quick read.

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  7. I don't know why, but it's so hard for me to read about people spiraling into a downward self-destructive cycle. I agree with some of the other examples of books that relate like Gatsby and Withering Heights. I didn't enjoy either of those books, so I'm pretty sure this book would be a turn off to me.

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    1. Yep...I think it's pretty safe to assume you wouldn't like this then. Thanks for stopping by.

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