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, a wealthy society man he 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: "if 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.
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 Dorothy 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?