Thursday, March 10, 2011

Appointment in Samarra - John O' Hara

The first four selections for our Heathrow Literary Society were haphazard selections that the group voted on as being interesting. After that, we decided to try to make more deliberate choices spanning various genres...classics, memoirs, thrillers, etc. "Appointment in Samarra" was our attempt at a classic, unknown to all of us but our leader, who read it in a previous book club. We were all game, primarily because we'd been reading chunksters and this little guy was only 270 pages long.

Published in 1934, this was O' Hara's first novel. It has been included in various "Top 100 books lists" over the years, and O' Hara has been described as everything from "the real F. Scott Fitzgerald" to "a well-known lout".

The title of the book requires a little explanation, as it is never actually mentioned within the story. "Appointment in Samarra" is a reference to W. Somerset Maugham's retelling of an old story (from Wikipedia):

A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions. Shortly, the servant comes home white and trembling and tells him that in the marketplace he was jostled by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, and she made a threatening gesture. Borrowing the merchant's horse, he flees at top speed to Samarra, a distance of about 75 miles (125 km), where he believes Death will not find him. The merchant then goes to the marketplace and finds Death, and asks why she made the threatening gesture. She replies, "That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."

Or, in other words, Death is going to find you, it's inevitable. A little foreshadowing action, then?

Synopsis: So in this case, whose death is inevitable? Within a handful of pages, we know that would be Julian English, a member of the upper middle class in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania in the 1930's. This society consists of decadent country clubbers who attend multiple parties and dances a week, who drink heavily, who come from some type of money, and who are quietly but threateningly governed by a local mobster.

Julian is the only child of a local doctor, now runs his own Cadillac dealership, and is married to the lovely Caroline, who has yet to conceive a child. Julian is a self-absorbed chap who thinks that the world revolves around him, and fancies himself the life and light of his social circle. One night, in a drunken fit of annoyance, Julian throws his drink in the face of a man who is a pillar in the financial and Catholic community. Thus begins Julian's three day spiral into utter ruin, making one bad decision after another, committing impulsive, embarrassing public acts, and ultimately keeping that appointment in Samarra.

My thoughts: O' Hara boldly depicts social status, class conflict, sexuality, and small-town politics in a way that must have shocking in his day. In many ways, it reminded me of "Peyton Place" (written in 1956), with its scandal, tragedy, class issues and quirky characters. I was impressed with "Peyton Place" for its decent writing, despite its reputation for being a trash novel. My expectation of "Samarra" was that of a classic piece of literature, worthy of book club discussion, but to me was underwhelming.

I suppose I never really felt invested in any of the characters. Julian was completely obnoxious...a spoiled brat who had no self-control and overreacted when things don't go his way. All of his problems could have been resolved, but I doubt he'd ever encountered such conflict and chose instead to avoid it by committing suicide. And I'm thinking that was the intended image the author wanted to portray. The supporting characters were entertaining, but lacked depth and seemed only to stand as symbols for society at the time.

In doing some research in an attempt to better "get" the story, I read that O' Hara was known for being quite adept at literary dialogue, which caused me to do a double-take. In fact, the dialogue was one facet of the prose that really bothered me. It felt stilted, uncomfortable and false, and even between a man and wife in the heat of an argument, way too sharp and cold and unemotional. Not very realistic, in my opinion. Was this intentional as well?

Lastly, and most importantly I think, is my opinion that O' Hara mistitled his book. By using the title "Appointment in Samarra", the implication is that Julian has a predetermined date with Death. In reading the story, this is far from the truth though. Death was not inevitable here, and could have been avoided if Julian hadn't been so dense. Hell, the guy that got a drink in his face actually LIKED Julian, and sent flowers to his funeral. Is there something I'm not getting?
My takeaway from this heralded wonder of a literary work is confusion, feeling like I'm not understanding a point, and general apathy. I don't feel like it was a waste of my time, yet I was not moved either.

Viewpoints of the Heathrow Literary Society: The book was received well overall. Most people agreed it was dark, and wasn't their favorite book, but enjoyed watching the hot mess Julian created for himself. Myself excluded, there was appreciation for the tight plot, the characterization, and the unique view of society during this era. One gentleman did come forward and state that he did not like the book, period. I believe my opinions were closer to his than the rest of the group.

In fact, most of the group thought the title of the book was completely appropriate...that Julian was headed for his date with death from the very beginning. I respectively (but emphatically) disagreed. There was some consent at the end of the meeting that perhaps O' Hara might be better suited to short stories (which he is known for) than a full length novel. The book, for its pros and cons, did inspire great discussion and differing opinions, which is our ultimate goal.

3 out of 5 stars


Unknown said...

It is amazing how many books in the "Top 100" lists I haven't heard of. I have only vaguely heard of John O'Hara and couldn't name any of his books. I haven't heard of this one before and you thoughts aren't making me rush out and add it to my list, so I'll probably have forgotten about it very soon. At least you can tick another book off some of those reading lists.

Julie P. said...

Not sure about this one....I did love your comment about the title --- so smart!

Bybee said...

O'Hara usually disappoints me. I have one more book of his on my TBR -- A Rage To Live -- then I'm probably done with him.

Zibilee said...

I remember us talking about this book, and I have been interested in hearing your full report on it. I do agree that it sounds as if Julian's date with death was not predetermined, but I can't speak to the stilted feel of the writing as I didn't read the book myself. It sounds like this author may write a little bit pretentiously though, which in my opinion, always annoys.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I have often found that books written a while ago have dialog that just doesn't resonate with us now. What is really funny to me is to read Lincoln's speeches, which seem so elevated and even hard to understand, and then reading the newspaper reports of the speeches which talk about what a "plain" speaker he was! I guess each time period has its own way of communicating. Just imagine somebody in the future reading our books now, full of OMG and IMHO etc! LOL

Ana S. said...

I wonder why the author DID pick that title! Very interesting point you make.

Alyce said...

I haven't heard of this book either. Last month at book club I was the only one who didn't like the book that we read. It's amazing how everyone approaches books with different expectations and impressions. Sometimes I can't help but wonder what others see in a book I can't stand though. :)

I don't know if I will be reading anything by this author anytime soon (especially after seeing Bybee's comment).

Darlene said...

I'm quite positive that this book wouldn't be for me. It always amazes me how some of these books end up in the top lists.

Jenners said...

At least it was short!

And I think I enjoyed the little blurb about where the book title came from more than I would enjoy the book.

Hope the next pick is better.

Heidenkind said...

Sounds a tiny bit like 3:10 To Yuma, theme-wise at least.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

I'm split on 'Samarra'. On one hand, O'Hara weaves quite the small town tapestry in the so called 'Hangover Years'. Though the dialogue, which you mentioned he's been appreciated for, is too hard boiled.

Knowing Julian's fate, which is apparent after Maugham's adapted story in the first few pages, stifles the suspense.

Oh well, hell of a debut novel.