Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Appointment in Samarra

John O'Hara is a classic American midcentury writer who was a new discovery for me. Although doesn't seem to have the wide renown of Hemingway or Fitzgerald, his first novel, Appointment in Samarra, garnered praise from, and drew comparisons to, both of those authors. He may be poised for a resurgence in popularity, as Penguin is releasing new deluxe editions of his works with bold, graphic covers that perfectly capture the post-Jazz Age world that O'Hara writes about.

Appointment in Samarra is set in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a mining town where Prohibition has led to booming business to small-time mobsters. Within the large cast of characters, the focus eventually narrows to Julian English, privileged son of a local doctor, owner of a Cadillac dealership, and half of one of the most admired couples in town. Although he seems to have all of the trappings of local success, Julian isn't satisfied with his life. The reasons for this aren't readily apparent. Unlike Fitzgerald's characters, we don't see him striving toward some distinct though unreachable goal. Instead, we witness Julian rail against the status quo through a series of increasingly destructive antics. He picks fights with other men in his social circle, lets his business dealings spiral out of control, and, in an act of marital infidelity, simultaneously alienates his wife, who he does seem to truly love, and angers the local mob boss. With a heavy drinking habit added to the mix, it becomes clear as the story progresses that things will not end well for Julian.

Although I appreciated the vivid world that O'Hara creates through his writing, I'm not sure I'd say I enjoyed spending time in it. A mob-infested small town where drinking is the municipal pastime is a pretty bleak world to buy into, made even bleaker by the fact that the events of the novel unfold over the course of Christmas. I was impressed by the way that O'Hara uses a diverse collection of characters to tell Julian's story, weaving their lives together to bring the novel to its climax. All of these characters only added to the bleak atmosphere for me, though. For the most part, they lack the more hopeful and/or wistful qualities that I like about many of Fitzgerald's and Hemingway's characters. This is most apparent in Julian himself. He's not a likable character in the present action of the novel, and we never really see a "best" version of his former self, so his ultimate downfall lacks the poignancy that might be found in similar downward spirals in other authors' works. 
Have you ever read anything by John O'Hara? While I can't say he's a new favorite, I am glad to have gotten a taste of his work.

A copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin. All thoughts and opinions in this post are my own.


  1. I have never read him, but from what you have written, I would choose to read Fitzgerald or Hemingway over him.

  2. The only thing I know about John O'Hara is that he wrote Butterfield 8 and the movie adaptation is fabulous - Elizabeth Taylor at her melodramatic best!
    I can't say that this novel sounds very enticing to me, but the cover is really great.



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