John O’Hara isn’t as well known now as he was in the mid-20th century. In the ’50s, three of his successful novels were turned into major movies: Ten North Frederick (1955) with Gary Cooper, Pal Joey (1957) with Frank Sinatra, and Butterfield 8 (1959) with Elizabeth Taylor. O’Hara had a reputation for being a very “masculine” sort of writer, hard-boiled and cynical, with stories pulled out of smoke-filled speakeasies or the whiskey-lined bars of Manhattan. And yet his writing could also be wistful and tragic: his characters have squandered their fortunes, missed crucial opportunities, and can barely stomach their own failures. In spite of all this, we’re drawn to them for their romanticism and yearning. O’Hara was part Damon Runyon, part F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Critics consider Appointment in Samarra (1934), O’Hara’s first novel, to be his best. The title, with its whiff of mystery and exoticism, is a bit incongruous for a story about a Pennsylvania Cadillac salesman. It’s taken from the book’s epigraph, a version of an old Arab tale recounted in W. Somerset Maughm’s 1932 play, Sheppey:
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, 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.
And so the novel opens with death. Over the course of the story, however, we’ll learn that death in the little town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania has many different meanings.
Appointment in Samarra is about the downward spiral of a promising young man. Over the course of three days in and around Christmas 1930, the drunk, self-loathing Julian English angers and alienates everyone close to him — employers, investors, friends, family, and his beautiful wife. The reasons for his behavior are a bit mysterious. He’s a bundle of petty jealousies, bigotry and insecurities. But the real reason for his reckless, maniacal behavior is his alcoholism. There’s hardly a moment in the novel when Julian isn’t drinking something. When he’s not drinking, he’s dreaming about drinking:
“Everyone was drinking, or had just finished a drink, or was just about to take one. The drinks were rye and ginger ale, practically unanimously, except for a few highballs of applejack and White Rock or apple and ginger ale, or gin and ginger ale. Only a few of the inner sanctum club members were drinking Scotch. The liquor, that is, the rye, was all about the same… It was not poisonous, which was all that was required of it and all that could be said for it.”
Part of Julian’s alcoholism is due to Prohibition. The story is set in 1930, three years before Congress repealed the Volstead Act and one year after the stock market crashed. Everyone was a little down and everyone drank a little more. But at the heart of Julian’s drive to drink is his own sense of inadequacy and his resentment toward affluent immigrants and non-WASPS as an emerging middle-class.
At the Christmas eve party at the local country club, Julian commits social suicide. Irritated by the abrasive jokes of the local big shot financier, Harry Reilly, Julian flings his highball into Reilly’s face in front of the other guests. Reilly is the biggest investor in Julian’s car dealership.
The reasons behind Julian’s rashness is a bit vague, but assembled from a set of insecurities and Old World prejudices. He loathes Reilly’s “Irishness” and his blarney humor. He resents his success in business and his ability to social climb. Perhaps more than anything else, Julian hates that his wife Caroline briefly dated Reilly before they were married and suspects that Reilly is waiting for Caroline to rebound once he becomes bankrupt. The act of the drink-flinging sets off a domino-chain of events that closes Julian off to everyone around him until finally he has nowhere to turn.
In Gibbsville, Pennsylvania among the sleek, upwardly mobile Lantenengo Street crowd, to die socially was the worst kind of death. Financial ruin was just as bad. Yet, Julian takes the loss of money and status in his stride. His lowest moment is when he gets into a bar fight with his best friend, Froggy Ogden, a WWI veteran who lost his arm in the war. By that point, Julian’s lost his basic sense of decency. His downfall is majestic and devastating.
O’Hara tells the story through an omniscient narrator. At various moments, we get sharp glimpses of small-town prejudices and class aspirations. We hear the thoughts of Irma Fliegler, the wife of Julian’s employee, and her dismay at the changes in her neighborhood:
“Irma chided herself for thinking this way about [her neighbor] Mrs. Bromberg on Christmas morning, but immediately she defended herself: Jews do not observe Christmas, except to make more money out of Christians, so you do not have to treat Jews any different on Christmas than on any other day of the year. Besides having the Brombergs on Lantenengo Street hurt real estate values. Everybody said so.”
Also, we meet Al Grecco, the aide and enforcer of the local gangster, Ed Charney, and we hear what he thinks of golden boy Julian:
“Ed liked Julian English. Julian English belonged to the Lantenengo Street crowd and he was the kind of a guy that was a high class guy and would be a high class guy in any crowd. You could tell by looking at him he was a high class guy. And he always spoke to the boys on the street. He wasn’t like some of them, who would do business with Ed… They wouldn’t even see Ed when they met him on the street.”
But the most moving glimpse of Julian comes at the end from his wife, Caroline:
“[He had] the smell of clean white shirts and cigarettes and sometimes whiskey. They would say he was drunk, but he wasn’t drunk. Yes he was. He was drunk, but he was Julian, drunk or not, and that was more than anyone else was. That was what everyone else was not.”
Caroline’s love for her wayward husband is passionate and heartbreaking, but sadly, it comes all too late.
The new deluxe Penguin edition of has a vivid red cover with Al Hirschfeld-like cartoon illustrations by Neil Gower. Some might like it, but I think the cover is a disservice to the book. Its lurid playfulness is misleading and it fails to capture the essential melancholy and mystery inherent in the story. However, the new introduction by The New York Times’ Charles McGrath is terrific. One could buy the book for McGrath’s essay alone. Part a biographical history of John O’Hara and part personal reflection of a 1930s story of self-destruction in the suburbs, McGrath’s introduction gives readers a sharp new insight into O’Hara’s fiction.
“[John O’Hara] was among the least autobiographical of writers, more interested in studying himself, someone he already had a high opinion of….[He also] had another quality: a toughness and grittiness, a determination to succeed and prove others wrong, that made him get up every morning—or, more likely, every afternoon—his head pounding, light another cigarette, and start typing.”
To many, O’Hara’s writing may seem commercial and popular now—merely polished pulp fiction for the educated masses. Then how is it that writers like Tom Wolfe and John Updike love his work? The answer has to do with O’Hara’s searing look at the dark side of the American upper and middle classes; the despair and fear that lurks beneath the affluence and ease of the country club set. It’s no surprise that Richard Yates’ 1961 novel Revolutionary Road owes something to John O’Hara, also, much of the storylines of Mad Men. Episodes like “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Red in the Face” and “The Suitcase” are all distinctly O’Haraesque in their shades of cruelty and tenderness.
Appointment in Samarra will always be one of the great mid-twentieth century American tragedies. O’Hara created a glamorous, doomed character in Julian English, who’s as captivating as Anna Karenina, Raskolnikov and Victor Frankenstein. We long for their salvation, and yet it never comes. The new Penguin edition of Appointment in Samarra does justice to O’Hara’s first great work, a novel that’s sensual, shattering and unknowable.