One of Time’s All-Time 100 Best Novels
The writer whom Fran Lebowitz called “the real F. Scott Fitzgerald” makes his Penguin Classics debut with this beautiful deluxe edition of his best-loved book.
One of the great novels of small-town American life, Appointment in Samarra is John O’Hara’s crowning achievement. In December 1930, just before Christmas, the Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, social circuit is electrified with parties and dances. At the center of the social elite stand Julian and Caroline English. But in one rash moment born inside a highball glass, Julian breaks with polite society and begins a rapid descent toward self-destruction.
Brimming with wealth and privilege, jealousy and infidelity, O’Hara’s iconic first novel is an unflinching look at the dark side of the American dream—and a lasting testament to the keen social intelligence if a major American writer.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
About the Author
John O’Hara (1905–1970) was one of the most prominent American writers of the twentieth century. Championed by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dorothy Parker, he wrote seventeen novels, including Appointment in Samarra, his first; BUtterfield 8, which was made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor; Pal Joey, which was adapted into a Broadway musical as well as a film starring Frank Sinatra; and Ten North Frederick, which won the National Book Award. He has had more stories published in The New Yorker than anyone else in the history of the magazine. Born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, he lived for many years in New York and in Princeton, New Jersey, where he died.
Charles McGrath (introducer) is the former editor of The New York Times Book Review and former deputy editor of The New Yorker. He is currently a writer at large for The New York Times.
Neil Gower (cover illustrator) is an internationally acclaimed graphic artist. He spent ten years as a contributing artist to Condé Nast Traveler and has provided art for major publishing houses and for such magazines as The New Yorker, The Economist, and Vanity Fair. He lives in Sussex, England.
Read an Excerpt
Introduction by Charles McGrath
Originally published in 1934, Appointment in Samarra is still the only American novel to begin with a scene of a married couple—Luther and Irma Fliegler—having sex early on Christmas morning. Later in the book, another married couple—Julian English, the novel’s protagonist, and his wife, Caroline—make love in the middle of Christmas afternoon. Julian has been dispatched on a disagreeable errand, and Caroline rewards him by waiting in their bedroom in a black lace negligee she calls her “whoring gown.” About their lovemaking, the novel says, “she was as passionate and as curious, as experimental and joyful as ever he was.”
That women are sexual creatures every bit as much as men is hardly news, but in 1934 it was news in fiction, and some readers found the sexual frankness of Appointment offensive. (“Nothing but infantilism,” the critic Henry Seidel Canby wrote in the Saturday Review, calling the book “the erotic visions of a hobbledehoy behind the barn.”) Before O’Hara, sex in American novels—polite novels, anyway—was mostly adulterous, not something that proper married women engaged in, or if they did, they weren’t known to enjoy it. The sexual needs of women, apart from pleasing their husbands or their lovers, went on to become one of O’Hara’s great themes, and in later novels, like A Rage to Live and Lovey Childs, O’Hara rode it like a hobbyhorse. But in Appointment there is a bracing tenderness and freshness in the way he describes the private lives of the Flieglers and the Englishes, and even decades later the novel’s explicitness may have emboldened O’Hara’s fellow Pennsylvanian John Updike in his own descriptions of marital (and extramarital) sex. Appointment is a genuine love story, charged with eros but stripped of sentimentality, and the relationship between the Englishes is more convincing and more satisfying than that of, say, Gatsby and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, or Henry and Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. Though unfaithful to her, Julian can’t stop loving Caroline, and after O’Hara devotes a whole chapter to her intimate thoughts and sexual explorations before marriage, the reader can’t help falling a little in love with her, too. Caroline, for her part, reflects at the end of the book: “He was drunk, but he was Julian, drunk or not, and that was more than anyone else was.”
O’Hara first thought of calling the novel “The Infernal Grove,” a title almost as unpromising as “Trimalchio in West Egg,” Fitzgerald’s first choice for The Great Gatsby. In a letter to his brother Tom he wrote:
The plot of the novel, which is quite slight, is rather hard to tell, but it concerns a young man and his wife, members of the club set, and how the young man starts off the Christmas 1930 holidays by throwing a drink in the face of a man who has aided him financially. From then on I show how fear of retribution and the kind of life the young man has led and many other things contribute to his demise. There are quite a few other characters, some drawn from life, others imaginary, who figure in the novel, but the story is essentially the story of a young married couple in the first year of the depression. I have no illusion about its being the great or the second-great American novel, but it’s my first. And my second will be better.
As it turned out, his second novel, Butterfield 8, was almost as good but not quite, and though O’Hara went on to write sixteen more novels, most of them big bestsellers, he could never top Appointment. Along with The Scarlet Letter, The Sun Also Rises, The Moviegoer, and Catch-22, it is one of the handful of American novels that represent both the author’s first published effort and his best. O’Hara, who published hundreds of short stories and thirteen collections in his lifetime, was actually a better story writer than he was a novelist, most evidently at the end of his career when the novels had grown bulky and laden with sociological exposition. The stories, by contrast, were almost minimalist, turning on just a line of dialogue or even a passing observation that suggests something crucial has just changed. More Hemingwayesque than Hemingway—more transparent and less mannered—these stories opened a path for such great American story writers as Salinger, Cheever, Updike, and Carver.
Appointment in Samarra probably grew out of some Pennsylvania stories O’Hara had been working on. In 1932 he mentioned to a friend that he was thinking of a story about a fi gure much like Al Grecco, the bootlegger’s henchman in the novel: a Schuylkill County gangster who is a hanger-on at a roadhouse frequented by the country club set. And though Appointment takes in much more than Al Grecco, who is only a minor character in the novel, it retains some of the terseness and quickness of a story. It’s a novel in a hurry.
The speed with which the book was written may account for the urgency of its storytelling. O’Hara began it in December 1933, when he was just twenty-eight, and wrote it in something like white heat, finishing in a little under four months. Set in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a lightly disguised version of Pottsville, where O’Hara grew up, the entire action of Appointment in Samarra—Julian English’s whirlwind of self-destruction—takes place in just thirty-six hours, and its breakneck pace is startling and exciting. Even on a second reading, when you know what’s going to happen, you tear through it still not quite believing in what’s just ahead and what’s already been established by the novel’s epigraph: an appointment in Samarra, we know from the beginning, is an appointment with death itself. Julian’s various offenses, none of them terrible in themselves—throwing a drink at the country club bore Harry Reilly; coming on to the girlfriend of the local bootlegger, Ed Charney; getting into a fistfight with his friend Froggy Ogden, a one-armed World War I vet—swiftly become a torrent that feels both dizzying and inevitable. There’s an impatient, impetuous side to Julian—who isn’t quite thirty, we have to remind ourselves—that feels already used up and enjoys his own ruin even as it’s happening. After his brief tryst with the bootlegger’s girl, the book says: “Julian, lost in his coonskins, felt the tremendous excitement, the great thrilling lump in the chest and abdomen that comes before the administering of an unknown, well-deserved punishment. He knew he was in for it.”
What also makes Appointment seem like a young man’s book is the way it tries to pack in almost everything O’Hara knew about the world, which was quite a lot for a twenty-eight-year-old. O’Hara had “a feral appetite to know things,” his biographer Geoffrey Wolff has said, and his book is well informed about sex, speakeasies and roadhouses, college fraternities and sororities, country clubs, coal mining, small-town journalism, big bands, the latest dance steps, Broadway shows, books, records, gangster slang, the right way to mix a highball, and cars—cars especially. They are practically characters in Appointment, where it matters that Julian English owns the local Cadillac dealership. O’Hara notices cars, and what they reveal about their owners, as carefully as does Irma Fliegler, who, lying in bed on that Christmas morning, can identify the cars out on the snowy street just from the sound each one makes driving by. Cars in this novel, where almost a dozen different brands are named, everything from a Stutz Bearcat to a Baker electric, are status symbols and emblems of progress but also trysting places, nests of refuge, and invitations to danger and recklessness. (O’Hara’s own car of choice, when he could afford one, was a Rolls-Royce, and to insure its safety he drove it to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and had it blessed by a monsignor.)
Appointment is also authoritative about class and drinking— along with sex, O’Hara’s two other great themes. O’Hara was an avid student of both and, until he finally went on the wagon, a famously nasty and quarrelsome drunk. He even attempted once to punch out a dwarf at the ‘21’ Club in New York. Bars, especially in his early years, were a research laboratory for O’Hara—they were where he came by so much of that knowingness—and in his early novels alcohol is the volatile fuel that propels the plot. When Appointment opens, Julian English is already well on his way to becoming a precocious alcoholic, if he isn’t there already, and in one way the story of his downfall is really the story of a single, epic binge, ending with a giant highball he mixes for himself in a flower vase.
Alcohol in O’Hara is the great loosener, a potion that makes people feel sexy and amorous, and in his books set during Prohibition it’s also a powerful leveler, a solvent eating away at the foundations of the social order and mingling the country club set with gangsters and their girlfriends and the likes of the bootlegger Ed Charney, a social arbiter in his own way and possibly the most powerful person in the county. Even the mixing of a living room cocktail, in a home as proper as Julian’s stiff-necked parents’, carries with it a whiff of corruption, and no one is exempt, not even the clergy. In one surprising scene in Appointment, Julian shares a companionable drink in a country club locker room with Monsignor Creedon, the pastor of the local Catholic church, who has to say Mass the next morning. He hesitates, looking at his watch, and then says, “All right. I’ve time. I’ll have one with you.”
The O’Haras were Catholics, and well-to-do. John was the eldest of eight children, born in 1905 to a prominent Pottsville physician. The family lived on Mahantongo Street (Lantenengo Street in the novel, the town’s toniest neighborhood) in a mansion that once belonged to the Yuengling brewing family. They owned five automobiles, a weekend farm, and a string of show horses, and belonged to all the town’s best clubs. Yet for whatever reason, O’Hara felt his Irishness and his Catholicism marked him as an outsider, and he became an obsessive observer of social hierarchy. He studied class indicators—clothes, college slang, fraternity pins and handshakes, membership lists— the way the Duc de Saint-Simon studied the rituals and pecking order at the court of Louis Quatorze. “To read him on a fashionable bar or the Gibbsville country club,” Edmund Wilson once wrote of O’Hara, “is to be shown on the screen of a fluoroscope gradations of social prestige of which one had not before been aware.”
As Julian reflects at one point, “by the time a man reached junior year in college he knew how he was situated in the country club social life,” and the novel extends this awareness of hierarchy into an entire social taxonomy. There’s Lantenengo Street, where the country club set lives, and then, down the hill, Christiana Street, home to the town’s middle class: a butcher, a motorman, a freight clerk, two bookkeepers for the coal company, a Baptist minister, a garage mechanic. The Flieglers don’t belong to the country club: when they want a drink or two they go with their friends, other Pennsylvania Dutch couples—the Schaeffers, the Ziegenfusses, the Hartensteins—out to one of the roadhouses on the outskirts of town. Still farther out are the little coal mining villages, or “patches,” home to “the hunkeys, the schwackies, the roundheaders, the broleys,” who can’t afford bootleg liquor and drink boilo, or homemade moonshine, instead.
O’Hara himself became a shameless social climber and poseur, the kind of person who collected matchbooks and ties from clubs he couldn’t get into and left them casually lying around his house. Especially as a young man he was probably a know-it-all, but his book doesn’t show off. It has some of the same factual density, the careful attention to small detail, as Updike’s Rabbit novels, also set in a small Pennsylvania town, where Rabbit even becomes a car dealer. “I guess I love this place,” a mostly sober Julian thinks, looking over a snowy Pennsylvania landscape, and the same is true of O’Hara, who in his writing returned again and again to Gibbsville, making it an entire miniature world, a northern Yoknapatawpha. If you want to know what it was like to live in 1930s America, Appointment in Samarra isn’t a bad place to start. You can get some of the same information from Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street but not in such urgent fashion. And while Appointment is dated in some ways, its stinging class awareness—its sense of everyone looking over his or her shoulder and scrabbling for a place on the social ladder—feels as current as the novels of Tom Wolfe.
Patrick O’Hara, John’s father, died when his son was twenty, leaving behind a mountain of debt. This, along with getting bounced from a series of prep schools, pretty much ended O’Hara’s dream of attending Yale, which was for him—or would have been, he imagined—what Princeton was for Fitzgerald. Instead he got a more varied education in bars and speakeasies and from working on the railroad, on an ocean liner, and as a hotel night clerk. Amazingly, as late as 1935, when he had already published three books, O’Hara was still fantasizing about New Haven. If he couldn’t get into Yale College, perhaps he could go to the Yale School of Medicine, he imagined. But he did his real graduate work in a succession of newspaper city rooms, starting at the Pottsville Journal and ending at the New York Herald Tribune. O’Hara was a terrible newspaperman. He was always being fired for being tardy, hungover, or just plain surly. But he learned a reporter’s reverence for facts and sharpened what was already an acute ear for the way people spoke in real life.
In the late 1920s O’Hara started writing Talk of the Town pieces and short stories—“casuals,” they were called—for The New Yorker and began an association with that magazine that lasted some forty years, with occasional time-out for feuds and quarrels. (O’Hara believed that his New Yorker pieces were so specialized they couldn’t be sold anywhere else and that the magazine should therefore pay him even for the ones that didn’t work out.) O’Hara felt, perhaps rightly, that he was never as valued by The New Yorker as he should have been (his 247 stories are still an all-time record there), and all his life he carried a chip on his shoulder when it came to his literary reputation. He thought he deserved the Nobel Prize, and lobbied for it, just as he did for honorary degrees, which didn’t come, either. (When Kingman Brewster, Yale’s president, was asked why the university never gave O’Hara a degree, he replied, “Because he asked for it.”) O’Hara had the misfortune to work in the shadow of his contemporaries Hemingway and Faulkner, and by the end of his career, when his kind of social observation had gone out of fashion, critics picked on him mercilessly.
O’Hara wrote his own epitaph, which is inscribed on the grave where he was buried in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1970: “Better than anyone else he told the truth of his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.” That’s pure O’Hara: blustery, self-important, a little needy, but not entirely wrong. In general, he was among the least autobiographical of writers, more interested in studying the world and its ways than in studying himself, someone he already had a high opinion of. But we can nevertheless catch a glimpse of O’Hara— the young O’Hara—in Julian English. On the one hand, English, whose very name proclaims him to be a member of the WASP ascendancy, is O’Hara’s revenge on the people who he felt had snubbed them. It’s the self-made Irishman Harry Reilly who wins in the end. But English and his creator nevertheless have a lot in common. They were both doctor’s sons (though O’Hara lets us know that Dr. English was famously and dangerously bad at skull surgery, something his own father was renowned for), and both were disappointments to their fathers, who didn’t bother to disguise it. Both liked to take a drink and were apt to pick fights when a little tight. Both liked pretty girls. (O’Hara, who at the time of writing Appointment was recently divorced from his first wife—she was a well-born Episcopalian—was probably even more of a ladies’ man than Julian was.) Julian has some of O’Hara’s cynicism and prickliness and also his social awareness. In a conversation with his secretary, Mary, Julian can’t help noticing that “she represented precisely what she came from: solid, respectable, Pennsylvania Dutch, Lutheran middle class; and when he thought about her, when she made her existence felt, when she actively represented what she stood for, he could feel the little office suddenly becoming overcrowded with a delegation of all the honest clerks and mechanics and housewives and Sunday School teachers and orphans—all the Christiana Street kind of people.”
In some ways Julian, with his money, his beautiful wife, his perfectly tailored clothes, his starched collars and waxed-calf shoes, his Kappa Beta Phi key, and his assured position in society, is the person O’Hara dreamed of being. Yet in the novel— this is perhaps the crucial point of Appointment in Samarra—it’s not enough. There’s an emptiness in Julian, a sense that life has already offered him all there is and it’s a disappointment. But O’Hara had still 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.
O’Hara is also more generous than Julian, who is a bit of a snob. To the end of the book O’Hara retains his sympathy for his character, whom he could so easily have lampooned, just as he resists the temptation to satirize or revenge himself on people like Julian’s parents or Caroline’s mother—social types he must have loathed in real life. The most remarkable thing of all about Appointment in Samarra is its tolerance, its sweetness, even. In his later novels O’Hara became harder and tougher, more cynical, but this first book is full of affection for the world as he found it.
Excerpted from "Appointment in Samarra"
Copyright © 2013 John O'Hara.
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What People are Saying About This
“With a dazzling new cover and smart new introduction, one of my favorite novels, Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara, is reborn. . . . This novel about class, drinking and sex is fun—and incredibly smart.” —Elizabeth Taylor,Chicago Tribune
“[A] gorgeous new edition . . . Appointment in Samarra still astonishes and amazes; and [O’Hara’s] style and themes—a bridge, if you will, between F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Updike—remain painfully and beautifully relevant today.” —Huffington Post
“Suspenseful, character-driven—it deserves to be read more.” —Joshua Ferris, Details
“Transfixing . . . A Jazz Age novel set amidst the early throes of the Depression . . . A striking antidote to contemporary novels like Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, which remain startling for their implacably cynical view of humanity. O’Hara offers a more nuanced, and more subversive view of the national mood at the cusp of the Depression.” —Nathaniel Rich, The Daily Beast
“Nobody who’s read it ever forgets Appointment in Samarra.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“An attractive new edition of Samarra, with deckled edges and a jazzy cover.” —The Philadelphia Review of Books
“If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra.” —Ernest Hemingway
“Appointment in Samarra lives frighteningly in the mind.” —John Updike
“It is alive with compelling characters and O’Hara’s dead-on dialogue and sharp observations.” —Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row
“[O’Hara] was as acute a social observer as Fitzgerald, as spare a stylist as Hemingway, and in his creation of Gibbsville, in western Pennsylvania, he invented a kind of small-bore variation on Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.” —Los Angeles Times
“An author I love is John O’Hara. . . . I think he’s been forgotten by time, but for dialogue lovers, he’s a goldmine of inspiration.” —Douglas Coupland, Shelf Awareness
“O’Hara was one of Mom’s favorite authors. . . . ‘So I finally read Appointment in Samarra,’ I told her. ‘I'd always thought that book had something to do with Iraq.’ . . . ‘It does apply to Iraq, even if that’s not at all what it’s about. It’s a book about setting things in motion and then being too proud and stubborn to apologize and to change course.’ ” —from The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
Reading Group Guide
Thirty years old, college educated, and the son of a doctor, Julian English, the protagonist of John O'Hara's classic novelAppointment in Samarra, appears to have life going his way. He owns a house on Lantenengo Street, the most prestigious boulevard in all of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. His wife Caroline is "the most attractive of the Lantenengo Street girls" (p. 110). Despite the recent onset of the Great Depression, his Cadillac dealership appears to be holding its own. Even Al Grecco, the small-time hood who runs liquor for the local crime boss Ed Charney, knows it's true: "Julian English . . . was a high class guy and would be a high class guy in any crowd" (p. 17). As he celebrates Christmas Eve 1930 with the town's in-crowd at the Lantenengo Country Club, Julian would seem to have every reason to be just as self-satisfied as his socially established clubmates Froggy Ogden and Harry Reilly. But before this evening is over, to his surprise as much as anyone else's, Julian will have impulsively thrown a drink into Reilly's face, the first act of Julian's rapid downward spiral into social disgrace and self-destruction.
Julian himself only dimly grasps the reasons for his suddenly erratic behavior, and everyone around him is shocked and puzzled. Only as author John O'Hara gradually and deftly reveals the conditions of life in English's outwardly prosperous but inwardly decaying town does the reader begin to understand why Julian feels as though he must act as he does. Desperate for the acceptance that his social circle dispenses only at the price of numbing conformity, but at the same time unwilling to forfeit his individuality, Julian feels trapped. Conscious of the approach of middle age, he fears the attention that both richer and younger men are devoting to his wife. As he wanders from meaningless party to meaningless party, Julian also feels the tightening grip of boredom, and he feels within himself a dull, creeping rot from which the only escapes appear to lie in alcohol and reflexive rebellion. As Julian's friends scratch their heads and gossip, and as Caroline wonders what is happening to the man she loves, Julian continues almost willfully to unravel, both engaging and repelling the reader's sympathies at every downward turn. As O'Hara's taut and gritty narrative nears its shattering climax, one feels sorrow, not only for Julian and his family, but for an American dream turned foul, a society gone blind, and a vision of happiness no longer credible or appealing.
Stark in its language and atmosphere, unerring in its dissections of human character, Appointment in Samarra ranks with the best of Theodore Dreiser in its naturalist depictions of human decline and rivals Sinclair Lewis in its denunciations of small-town egotism and bigotry. Not without reason did the Modern Library choose the book as one of the twenty-five greatest English-language novels of the last century, and not without reason do readers continue to relish its every page.
ABOUT JOHN O'HARA
John O'Hara was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in 1905 and graduated from Niagara Preparatory School in Lewiston, New York. His father's death and resulting financial hardship prevented him from realizing his dream of attending Yale. O'Hara turned instead to writing, first supporting himself by writing for local newspapers and then moving to New York to pursue a career in fiction. He became an astonishingly prolific writer of short stories, many of them set in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a barely disguised fictionalization of Pottsville. O'Hara's short stories published in The New Yorker alone eventually numbered more than two hundred. His novels also won success, especially when adapted to other media. BUtterfield 8 became an Oscar-winning film, and Pal Joey found a prosperous second life as a Broadway musical. O'Hara received the National Book Award for Ten North Frederick and his début novel, Appointment in Samarra, was named by the Modern Library as one of the twenty-five greatest English-language novels of the twentieth century. He died in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1970.
- The title Appointment in Samarra derives from a story told in the novel's epigraph, concerning a man who flees from death, little realizing that his appointment with the reaper is set to take place at his destination. How do the title and the epigraph relate to the plot of Appointment in Samarra? Is there a sense of inevitability in the book?
- Some readers have felt as if Julian's reactions to adversity are too extreme for the circumstances that provoke him. Do you agree? O'Hara biographer Frank MacShane has written that Julian's dramatic excessiveness is indicative of Julian's real-life generation, which grew up accustomed to easy circumstances without having earned them and therefore lacked the emotional fortitude to cope with the Great Depression. How might the events of Appointment in Samarra correspond to the thirty-something's of today?
- Appointment in Samarra was controversial in its time for its open and somewhat graphic treatment of sexuality. How do you respond to O'Hara's depictions of the sexual motivations and behavior of his characters? Does he deserve praise for his realism or mild censure for his descents into vulgarity?
- Julian's nickname in the text is "Ju," a word to which he at times reacts negatively. Though O'Hara himself does not espouse anti-Semitism in the novel, its characters frequently indulge in anti-Jewish bigotry. What parallels might be drawn between Appointment in Samarra and the real life events of the early 1930s impacting Jewish communities in America and around the world?
- In his development of the character of Julian's wife, Caroline, O'Hara seems to take inordinate interest in her romantic and sexual aspects and to think less about her outside of her relationships with men. Yet he also writes of Caroline, "Upstairs was a girl who was a person." How well does O'Hara seem to understand Caroline, and does she succeed as a fully rounded character?
- How does O'Hara represent women in general? In what ways does he make them sympathetic? In what ways do they tend to undermine and destroy the men of Gibbsville? Conversely, how do the men undermine and destroy the women?
- O'Hara offers an implied contrast between the English's marriage, which is a failure, and the Flieglers' marriage, which succeeds. What are the differences between the two unions, and why do those differences make a difference?
- The pivotal disappointment of O'Hara's life was not being able to attend Yale University. How, if at all, does this resentment appear to influence his treatment of "college boys" in Appointment in Samarra?
- Discuss the social atmosphere in Gibbsville. What traits do people tend to value? What kinds of bad behavior are tolerated, and what kinds seem impossible to excuse? Why are the pressures to be and act like everyone so intense? Why is it often worse to break the rules than to break the law?
- Why does O'Hara spend so much time developing the relatively minor character of Al Grecco? What dimension is added by Grecco's noticeable presence?
- Julian English is a Cadillac dealer who meets his ultimate fate in his car. The car one drives is, in this novel, always an expression of status and character. Discuss Appointment in Samarra as a novel of car culture.
- In a narrative technique borrowed from Greek tragedy, O'Hara sometimes chooses not to show directly the moments of catastrophe in his story, opting instead to have them reported by eyewitnesses. What does O'Hara both gain and lose through this stratagem?
- Movie studios did not pick up Appointment in Samarra. It was too raw, too pessimistic, too unromantically sexual. Do you think the book would work better now as a film than in the thirties? Why or why not?
- Imagine yourself as the director of a film version of Appointment in Samarra. Choose a particular scene and explain in detail how you would shoot it, including choices of set design, lighting, and camera angles.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fran Lebowitz is quoted as saying O'hara is 'the real F. Scott Fitzgerald' on the back of this edition, and while that sounds pretty agressive, it's not far off the mark either. This is O'hara's debut novel, amazing, given at how fully realized his storytelling comes across, as well as his knack for great dialogue (which he was known for). Set in a small town where a young crowd shares progressive ideals, different viewpoints are given to the fall of Julian English and his wife Caroline after Julian heads for self-destruction battling personal demons along the way. The writing from opening lines, to the devastating finish is enough to shed a few tears for, and the humor and tragedy don't come across as forced or at odds with one another, but play out for a bittersweet novel that is worth more than one reading over the years. Hardboiled in style, though not noirish. Set in December of 1930 complete with bootlegging and prohibition.
this book was quite interesting although i have read it several times. It is an excellent display of dramatic irony in the situation. but i reccommend it to all for a good suspense story :)
This novel has been called one of the top 100 of the 20th century - and it deserves to be included in that group. O'Hara's writing is superb as he explores how a single incident can cause a life to unravel. First published in the early 1930's, the story and writing style are remarkably fresh; the characters could be the people who live next door.
If Ernest Hemingway had written The Great Gatsby, it might have come out something like this. It's brilliantly done, but I didn't like it, if you know what I mean. The characters are virtually soul-less, but some of them almost grasp what's missing in their lives. For the most part, they haven't a clue what to do about it, other than to keep throwing parties and observing the strict social rules that structure their WASP existence. These are not the filthy rich of the Hamptons, but the middle class well-off's of small town America. Full of ironies and very well-executed scenes --I've never read a better portrayal of a man slipping into inebriated blabbering anywhere. I give it a solid 3 1/2 stars, and recommend wider readership for John O'Hara.
O'Hara did for fictional Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, what Faulkner did for Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi: surveyed its social life and drew its psychic outlines. But he did it in a realistic and worldly fashion, without Faulkner's taste for mythic inference or the poetry of his prose. I can sometimes see signs of O'Hara in the novels of Updike or Roth. Julian English is a man who squanders what fate gave him. He lives on the right side of the tracks, with a country club membership and a wife who loves him. This short novel outlines his decline and fall, over the course of just 72 hours around Christmas, showing him in the throes of too much spending, too much liquor compounded by a couple of reckless gestures. The calamity is all the more powerful due to its extreme petty and preventable nature. In Faulkner the tragedies all seem to be comparable to Greek tragedy, even when they're happening among the lowlifes. In O'Hara's novels the commoners get there come-uppance and it is as if they could be you. His prose is very readable and I found this and other of his novels (Ten North Frederick, Butterfield Eight and From the Terrace) hard to put down.
I'm a bit puzzled at the great reviews given this book. It has aged badly, and the characters that are meant to be real people have become stereotypes. The motivations of the characters are understandable only if the reader accepts the major premises that well-off Americans in a suburb are: (1) almost entirely motivated by selfishness , (2) unable to empathize with others, and (3) have pseudo-morals based entirely on superficial class prejudices. It is difficult to imagine a place where there are no redeeming individuals and no altruism. The novel turns into a one-dimensional, unrealistic sermon.
"Appointment in Samarra", by John O'Hara, is the telling of how Julian English's life spirals out of his control in three days. On the first day, he throws a drink in the face of Harry Reilly, a man to whom he owes money. On the second day, he is openly unfaithful to his wife Caroline with the mistress of a gangster who has been good for English's Cadillac business. And finally, on the third, he gets into a very bad altercation at an eating club. He is drunk almost constantly during this time, which happens to be Christmas and the two days afterwards.At the end of the story, I did not feel that any of his problems had to be the end of the world--given that he straighten up and fly straight--but Julian English is a depressed person and obviously a self-destructive one who has suicidal thoughts three times in this story before acting on it. And one part of his life that was probably irreparably damaged was his marriage; Caroline was dreadfully unhappy, and I got the feeling that she was finished with him.I will interject my perception that the three days, three acts, and three suicidal thoughts in this story do seem to constitute a trinity theme, which may be a stylistic echo of Julian's discomfort with the Catholic community, of which Harry Reilly is member.O'Hara prefaces his story with W. Sommerset Maugham's Death Speaks to very good effect. The reader knows that Julian English is fated to die and will not escape that fate. As Julian's father, Dr. William English, pronounces his son dead, he thinks of his own father. Julian's grandfather had also lead a destructive life that ended by his own hand, and so Dr. English is resigned to the belief that the suicide gene had jumped a generation, that this was Julian's time to die.Meanwhile, other people react with surprise. Harry Reilly is astonished, and acknowledges that he knew Julian liked him. "He wouldn't borrow a nickel from me if he didn't like me." And later, "...I wonder what in God's name would make him do a thing like that?" Of course, we know that Reilly was plenty angry with English about the drink, which gave him a black eye, but this is an example of how some of Julian English's perceptions are wildly exaggerated. Tragically, it is this drunken insult to Reilly that sets him in downward motion, because he truly believes that Reilly is going to get back at him in some way that will ruin his livelihood. Julian's wife Caroline is shocked, traumatized, and aggrieved. This is not the ending she foresaw, but I got the feeling that she would eventually pick up the pieces and go on. It is impossible to escape the thought that, in the long run, Julian's suicide might have made her life easier."Appointmentin Samarra" is also a window into the historically fascinating time of prohibition, including the prejudices and social mores of that time, and is also of special interest to those familiar with the Lehigh Valley, in Pennsylvania. John O'Hara wrote his novel in an appealing third person narrative style with dialogue that seems very natural. But then, O'Hara knew the time and place very well, having been born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania in 1905.This was a good read.
A very well and delicately written book that I liked very much toward the beginning but which ended up boring me a little toward the end. Still, rather nice.