John O’Hara’s Appointment In Samarra

appointment-in-samarraJohn O’Hara wrote Appointment In Samarra, his first novel, when he was my age now, 28 years old, completing it in a few short months, and though he would go on to be a prolific novelist and short story writer – his 200-plus contributions to the New Yorker remains a record at that publication – his first effort remains his most famous. And deservedly so, for I have read few novels as tightly plotted, as powerfully evocative of a time and a place, and with so many memorable characters. The setting is the fictional Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, in late December of 1930, one year after the start of the Great Depression and three years before the end of Prohibition. Bootleggers and organized crime operate in the background, supplying the wealthy with liquor, while groups once relegated to the fringes of American society are finding success and challenging for greater admission into society. Drinking and alcoholism are rampant, as is infidelity, but the small-town mores of previous decades have not yet made discussion of these things public.

In his time, O’Hara was criticized as being a low-brow writer, a tawdry gossip reliant on sex, drugs and alcohol to sell books, but in retrospect we might prefer to call him merely honest: he reported on what he saw, and much of what he saw was offensive to public sensibility. The novel begins, for example, on Christmas Day, in the bed of Irma and Luther Fliegler, as the latter wakes up and tests his luck:

[…] Irma likes Christmas too, and on this one morning she might not mind the trouble, might be willing to take a chance. Luther Fliegler more actively stifled the little temptation and thought the hell with it, and then turned and put his hands around his wife’s waist and caressed the little rubber tire of flesh across her diaphragm. She began to stir and then she opened her eyes and said: ‘My God, Lute, what are you doing?’
‘Merry Christmas,’ he said.

In 1934, when Appointment in Samarra was first published, such honesty was scandalous, but O’Hara is after more than shock, for immediately after these revelations Lute goes back to sleep, and we enter the mind of Irma, whose contemplations about the Christmas morning silence blend into thoughts about her Jewish neighbours:

Irma chided herself for thinking this way about 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.

We are scarcely two pages into the novel and O’Hara has already trampled over the delicate subjects of sex and social divisions. Note that throwaway line, “Everybody said so” – its inclusion is a stroke of genius, for those three words are how Irma Fliegler justifies her prejudice to herself, an appeal to group wisdom and an early indication of just how powerful that amorphous “everybody” is in 1930s small town America.

O’Hara is a masterful observer, of both people and customs, and as the novel unfolds, we see how intricately the citizens of Gibbsville are intertwined in one another’s lives – family relationships, school friendships, business and romantic entanglements, both past and present. There are unwritten social rules governing all of this, and violating social custom – by showing up at a party uninvited, or eating in the wrong social club, or purchasing a car from the wrong dealership – can spark off a chain reaction of consequences. Lubricating all of these tense relationships is alcohol, which, despite Prohibition, is available everywhere and in vast quantities:

 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 ginger ale, or gin and ginger ale. Only a few of the inner sanctum members were drinking Scotch. The liquor, that is, the rye, was all about the same: most people bought drug store rye on prescriptions (the physicians who were club members saved ‘scrips’ for their patients), and cut it with alcohol and colored water. It was poisonous, and it got you tight, which was all that was required of it and all that could be said for it.

But the heavy drinking causes more problems than it solves. The central character of Appointment In Samarra is Julian English, the son of a wealthy doctor and the owner of a prestigious Cadillac car dealership. He has a beautiful wife, the respect – and sometimes envy – of his peers, and the kind of natural graces that make him “one of the socially secure, who could thumb their noses and not have to answer to anyone except their own families.” But Julian does more than thumb his nose. In a moment of drunken anger, he throws a highball in the face of Harry Reilly, a wealthy and well-connected Catholic who has personally invested in Julian’s business, thus setting off a series of self-destructive events that culminate in his self-destruction.

O’Hara does not attempt to disguise Julian’s inevitable end: the very title of the book, taken from one of William Somerset Maugham’s plays, hints at the inevitability of his death. Instead, he tasks us with looking backward, like a forensic scientist, to uncover what it is about his character, or his upbringing, or his life story, that seals his fate. There is a famous poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Richard Cory,” which might have served as a kind of inspiration for the novel:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Julian is O’Hara’s Richard Cory, the envy of the town, but O’Hara is not content with leaving us to wonder. We learn, for example, about his grandfather, who was caught embezzling money and took a shotgun to his head, and how his father, fearing some fault in the bloodstream, was especially hard on the young Julian. In an extraordinary use of his omniscient narrator, O’Hara takes us into the mind of Julian’s wife, Caroline, showing us her upbringing, her early love affairs and her eventual infatuation with the flawed Julian. Modern television watchers will recognize in Julian English Mad Men‘s Don Draper, the fatally flawed leading man with everything he could possibly want and yet an emptiness at his core. Appointment In Samarra is an investigation into that emptiness, its causes and its consequences, and it seems to me as skillfully executed as any 20th century American novel I’ve read.