John O’Hara: Appointment in Samarra (1933) The Social and Psychological Downfall of an Alcoholic

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.
“For all its excellence as a social panorama and a sketch of a marriage, it is as a picture of a man destroyed by drink and pride that Appointment in Samarra lives frighteningly in the mind” John Updike

Isn’t it wonderful when you read a book at the exact right time? I started Appointment in Samarra on Christmas Eve, not knowing that the novel started on Christmas Eve or rather, during the early morning hours of Christmas and tells a story, with a few flashbacks, that lasts exactly three days. Three days in which a man starts his descent. The man is Julian English and the reason for his downfall seems to be his throwing a glass of drink, including ice cubes, into the face of a much despised but universally feared man. Of course this is not the real reason for Julian’s fall into the social and psychological abyss, it is just the tipping point, the one crucial moment that pushes him over the edge. The real reason is his heavy drinking and, due to this, the end of his marriage to Caroline, a woman he still loves and desires as much as when he met her. On an even deeper level, there is also something happening that the French writer Cocteau termed “La machine infernale”. And exactly this is what the title alludes to. Appointment in Samarra refers to a short piece taken from Somerset Maugham titled Death speaks that opens the novel. Death speaks alludes to the inevitability of destiny. Once the machine is set in motion, there is no stopping it. Once your fate has been decided you cannot change it.

Apart from following Julian’s descent Appointment in Samarra offers an incredibly interesting analysis of a highly ritualized society during the Great Depression and Prohibition era. Julian and Caroline English are part of the high-society of the small town, Gibbsville. They follow the rules of club life and parties very closely until Julian throws his drink into Harry’s face. From this moment on, he is an outcast. But what is so terrible in what he did? It seems to lay bare the undercurrent of hate and contempt beyond this façade of politeness and good manners. And what’s worst, he doesn’t really give a damn. Breaching the rules of society sets something free in Julian as well. He doesn’t keep up a front anymore. He had problems with alcohol before but now they get unbridled. He drinks and drinks and drinks, hurts people’s feelings and still doesn’t care until he cannot stop anymore.

Appointment in Samarra was criticized when it came out as it is a very outspoken novel. Sexuality is a central theme and even women show interest in it. At the same time it illustrates what society expects from its members, especially its female members. Virginity is an important topic and the fact whether or not a girl is a virgin is of greatest importance. There are two flashback parts in the novel. One shows Caroline just before she gets married to Julian and is an interesting and careful analysis of women’s role in this society. The second flashback focuses on Julian’s childhood and his complicated relationship with his father a very incapable surgeon. It also mentions Julian’s grandfather who committed suicide and was, as Julian’s father states, a liar like Julian himself.

One of the most impressive features of this book is how O’Hara handles point of view. It is very diverse and original but not experimental. The second thing that struck me is his use of dialogue. Some of the dialogues are among the best I have ever read. These people sound like real people, also the drunken Julian is incredibly well rendered.

Apparently O’Hara has in parts told his own story. He just got divorced, pretty much for the same reasons as Julian. He drank too much. However some of the traits are inverted. O’Hara was an Irish Catholic but in the book Harry, the guy he throws the drink at, is an Irish Catholic. O’Hara’s own father was a doctor and the relationship must have been a conflicting one.

Appointment in Samarra is also a very American novel, one of the most American novels I have ever read and this is not only based on the fact that the Depression and Prohibition are mentioned but in how prominent the role of cars is in this novel. Cadillacs to be precise. Apart from being status symbols, they are treated like rooms. You drive in them, talk in them, quarrel and make love in them. You sit in your car to drink or smoke or just think. And you can end your life in a car as well.

According to John Updike who wrote the foreword to my edition, this seems to have been O’Hara’s first and most accomplished novel. Apparently he wrote some 400 short stories.

I always wanted to read the novel since I saw it mentioned by one of the soldiers in the movie Redacted (which I never finished watching btw.  There are a lot of allusions to the Great War, which would probably also be worth analyzing) and lately saw O’Hara mentioned on Danielle’s blog.

This is definitely a book to reread. I don’t really know if I liked it but I found it fascinating and enjoyed the style a great deal. This is like reading F. Scott Fitzgerald without the varnish. A novel with the feel of a roman noir and the bleakest of endings.

11 thoughts on “John O’Hara: Appointment in Samarra (1933) The Social and Psychological Downfall of an Alcoholic

  1. I really want to read this–anything from the 30s particularly. It sounds quite similar in theme to Butterfield 8 (haven’t seen the movie, though it is also very famous w/Elizabeth Taylor), which I read some years ago. I think that was one of the darkest, bleakest books I had ever read and it left me feeling almost depressed. Interesting about the title–though it makes sense considering the fable (or biblical story?) it is based on. I know exactly what you mean by maybe not liking a book but appreciating it for what it does. I don’t think my copy has any sort of intro unfortunately–I always find those helpful.

    • I think it is not a depressing book, it is bleak but the bleakness stays with the characters, if you know what I mean. It doesn’t drag the reader down. I was very glad about the intro. I was not familiar with O’Hara at all. Maybe he is not very well known in Europe? The 30s are fascinating, the foreboding, the dance on the volcano… I just watched La Grande Illusion (1937)… What a movie.

  2. I don’t think this is the kind of book I usually read, but I have to admit you make it sounds so interesting.

    one of the most American novels I have ever read

    This line really intrigued me. What do mean by it?

    • The Prohibition to start with is very American. Imagine you forbid alcohol in Europe… There are some very mafia-like characters in this book which also sounds very American. But the most American is the importance of the car. This is more than a status symbol. The people in this book are constantly driving around or sitting in their cars. They really do everything in their car. That is not very European. At least it wouldn’t be mentioned all the time. And Cadillacs are typically American cars, huge petrol consumption, really not economical or ecological at all.

  3. I’d never heard of O’Hara before. I see there’s a French edition by Rivages. (a good reference for me, as a publisher) It sounds good. Pff… How am I going to find the time to read all the books that tempt me?

    I like what you say about Americans and cars. The first time I ate in a car on the parking lot of the restaurant instead of eating in the restaurant itself was when I stayed with an American family.For a French, it’s surreal. (I also learnt then that you could actually eat sandwiches AT HOME. To me, eating sandwiches meant pic-nic, day out)

    • Don’t tell me about books and temptation… I think you would like this. Yes, it is surreal this car thing… I eat in a car when I am on a very long trip and even then I’d rather stop somewhere… And this doesn’t even take place in one of those big cities in which you really need a car but in a small twon and still, no one walks. No one goes for a walk, they drive to a place and get out and sit on the lawn. Maybe Italians do have a similiar relationship with their cars, apart from the eating in it.

  4. Excellent review, Caroline. It’s so interesting to read your take on this. You’ve highlighted so many great things about the novel – the use of dialogue (which I agree is very good), the focus on Cadillacs, the importance of virginity as a sign of purity. I can imagine how shocking some of the elements must have been at the time of publication.

    Scott F. Fitzgerald crossed my mind as well, and also Richard Yates. I guess O’Hara falls somewhere between the two. Have you read anything else by him? Any of the stories or another novel?

    • Thanks, Jacqui. Even reading my own review doesn’t bring back the novel but I was very impressed and always wanted to read more. I haven’t. I hadn’t read any Richard Yates yet, back then and now, I feel I can relate more to Yates. Isn’t O’Hara much darker?
      I can’t even remember the dialogue but since I’m a sucker for great dialogue, I might have to reread it. I think one reason why I never read anything else is because I seem to remember reading that it was his masterpiece. Always bad to start with the best book first. 🙂

      • It reminded me a bit of Yates’ Disturbing the Peace, especially given Julian’s self-destructive streak. I can’t recall if you’ve read than one, but it’s definitely the darkest Yates I’ve read so far. There’s a bitterness to it, more so than his others which tend to be somewhat sympathetic.

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