Review: Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

7th May 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, in exchange for an honest review.

In one of the greatest scenes I’ve read in recent memory, Julian English fantasizes about throwing his drink in the face of Harry Reilly. What has Harry done? Nothing, really. But at this particular dance, Harry Reilly tells story after story, and it’s not just that – Harry has a specific method to his storytelling, mannerisms of which Julian tires. But he dissuades himself, reminding himself that Harry has loaned him quite a bit of money to pull Julian out of a pinch at the Cadillac dealership. Plus, Julian’s afraid people might think it’s because Harry dotes on Julian’s wife, Caroline.

The narrative passes, and then one partygoer tells another that Julian did indeed toss his drink into Harry Reilly’s face, and as the inside of the book says, “in one rash moment born inside a highball glass, Julian breaks with polite society and begins a rapid descent toward self-destruction.”

Just a small indiscretion in the scheme of things, really, but in 1930s suburban Pennsylvania, Julian’s action threatens to topple the carefully placed house of cards that the city of Gibbsville and its elite have created. In a society where single men and women are paired off based on their looks and prospects, and the society page lists who attended whose party, Julian has willfully placed himself outside the rules, and O’Hara depicts Julian’s existential crisis in brilliant moments of stream of consciousness and internal monologue. As Julian remarks at one point, there are other, worse indiscretions – affairs conducted under the nose of one’s wife; domestic abuse; suicide – but those are one offs. Julian English’s breach is not just societal; it’s seen as evidence of English’s hatred of Catholics (Reilly is a Catholic), as evidence of his snobbishness, as his place is higher than that of Reilly’s.

John O’Hara is near brutal in his descriptions of the various characters in Appointment in Samarra – deftly describing a well-respected doctor and a small-time whiskey runner in equally harsh light. Even Julian’s wife, the lovely and admired Caroline, doesn’t escape his ire. Though she loves her husband, she’s much too concerned with the demise of the couple’s social status to concern herself with her husband’s rapid descent. Yet even in O’Hara’s bald depictions of these people, there is sympathy, to the end. For, if any people were more a product of the times, it’s the Gibbsville set. Bound by their conventions but expected to be young and free and daring, the men and women in Appointment in Samarra are, much like the title of the book, destined to burn quick and bright before meeting their fates.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

  • It really was so good. I didn’t mention it in the review, but his dialogue was just about perfect. (And I’ve loved each of the covers I’ve seen – gorgeous)

  • This was definitely a book for me that, while I didn’t necessarily love it, I felt like I was learning something – especially about the era.

    Julien’s descent into depression – that he must have shared with his grandfather – was fascinating. The whole concept of hiding personal life from the public life really struck home with me, it’s almost impossible in the society we have today.

    • I felt the same way. It’s too quietly devastating to be loved. But at the same time, it’s just some really great writing.

  • Sounds like a good companion to The Great Gatsby.

    • Most definitely. TGG seems to be one of the least understood books when you look at it in terms of pop culture – glitz, glam, bada bing. Yes, but….

      This books is an excellent example of the underbelly.

  • Love this review — just started this one and am already enraptured.

    • Can’t wait to hear what you think!

  • Thank you for this review and like others have said, hopefully this will help breathe new life into the book. IMO, it’s a much darker, more nuanced book than Gatsby and one that I would love to see made into a movie someday as well.

    And let’s be honest – is there a better back story than the one O’Hara has for his inspiration for the title? i knew right after I read that story that this was going to be brutally great. And so it was (is).

    • I felt the same way after reading that. I thought: whoa. This is going to be something, and it was.

      I had (sadly) never even heard of it before, so I was glad for the introduction.

  • Charlie

    I’m thinking Gatsby, too. Sounds really good, better than the plot line of Gatsby, perhaps.

    • It’s been so long since I’ve read Gatsby that I can’t comment. But I think they’d be interesting companion reads.

  • bybee

    This is my favorite O’Hara novel. For me, it’s kind of like a cross between Gatsby and Revolutionary Road.

    • I haven’t read the latter but know a bit about it, and I’d say based on that, you’re dead on. Such a great book.