Book Review – Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

Originally published in 1934, Appointment in Samarra tells the story of John English, an upper class man who begins a rapid descent into alcoholism and social ostracism over the course of three days.

Not being raised in America, this was never mandatory reading during my formal education. I picked it up because many sources have hailed O’Hara as one of the most important American writers, and he also has a reputation of writing a good narrative. However, since gamobo is not an academic blog, this review will consider Appointment from a purely aesthetic standpoint (is reading it a good way to pass the time?) in terms of three elements: plot, characters, and narrative. There will be spoilers.

Plot

The action starts when Julian English realizes he is sick of his life. He owns a car dealership and is seemingly well off, though we later learn he owes a great debt to Harry Reilly. In his introductory scene we read that our protagonist has thrown his drink into Harry’s face, though it’s never shown to us on page. Julian inexplicably commits two more acts that damage his reputation further: he seduces the wife of the local mob boss in front of Caroline English (his own wife) and their local friends, and he is involved in a brawl with his wife’s one-armed, war veteran cousin and a few strangers at the country club. By the end he realizes he has gone too far off the edge, but it isn’t his disgraced reputation that drives him to suicide, but the thought that his wife will now leave him for another man and his inability to find a replacement. Sounds romantic, but ultimately it is a hollow attempt at garnering reader sympathy.

The problem is that these events are driven by one single motivation: Julian is dissatisfied with his life and he wants to shake things up. No reason is given as to why he feels this way. The best explanation I could think of was that this novel takes place during the Great Depression, and perhaps O’Hara watned to represent the pessimism and dread so prevalent during that time. This is still a weak premise however, as we learn that Harry Reilly is actually a pretty nice guy, and even though Julian owes him a lot of money it doesn’t seem like something Harry thought too much about.

All that is left is a protagonist who goes on a path of self-destruction with no real reason given. While this plot is indeed entertaining, it lacks substance and impact, because a big question is always left hanging in the air: why the hell is Julian so disgruntled and ungrateful? Maybe there was an explanation given between the lines, but it certainly doesn’t pan out in the plot.

Characters

As a result of the plot’s lack of a motivation for Julian, Caroline ended up being the more interesting character. She is more sympathetic because we understand her suffering is directly caused by Julian’s behaviour. Caroline has demons of her own but remains a devoted spouse stuck in a complicated situation, because during that time period one simply did not divorce. With all the legitimate concern piling up for Caroline, perhaps O’Hara intended Julian to be an anti-hero, but no matter what type of character you have, if the audience doesn’t understand or accept their motivation, they’ll either be bland or obnoxious no

One thing O’Hara has going for him is that he is adept at creating a diverse cast of characters. We have various husbands and wives, a mob boss, his lackey, the mistress, the wry and wizened Lute, and several others. They each feel alive and unique, which is a notable accomplishment in a story primarily about one man.

However, it is a shame that O’Hara spends so much time on Julian, and ends up wasting the potential of all the other characters. Lute and Al Grecco were two of the more interesting characters, but they both end up contributing nothing to the plot. One wonders why O’Hara spent time building their characters in the first place only to have them both be observers (rather than participants) in the plot’s main events.

Narrative

The prose is pleasant to read and straightforward in a distinctive American style. O’Hara makes no effort to be poetic or inspiring, but his straightforward manner of writing is effective at simultaneously holding our attention and portraying events and character reactions.

The book is (in)famous for writing freely about sex, according to the standards of the time. This is where the novel shows its age. The implicit and explicit sexual depictions in the novel are simply irrelevant in 2016. Yes, the book may have legitimate claims to being a prime influencer for today’s state of affairs, but as stated earlier, gamobo is not an academic or social review blog. The reviews here judge books based on their entertainment value, and what must have been shocking and entertaining to audiences in 1930 feels silly and inconsequential today. I suspect this is the main reason why the plot falls short of being captivating, as O’Hara was probably banking on the book’s promiscuity to hold the reader’s attention, but to a contemporary reader the plotholes are more visible than any feelings of “sexiness”, and because the narrative does nothing special to bolster the reading experience, very little remains to redeem Appointment in Samarra as a simple story of one dissatisfied man.

In Conclusion…

Read it if you’re a historian, or if you want to find out how people thought and behaved during the 1930s. For the rest of us, nothing will be missed on a pass of this book. What this book tries to do has been done better by more modern books, TV shows, and movies. We’ve all been desensitized to the elements that made Appointment a noteworthy book, and so there is nothing of value beyond literary dissection and historical analysis.

This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.

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