Flavorwire named it one of the ten books to read “While You’re Waiting for The Great Gatsby to Come Out.” Fran Lebowitz said John O’Hara is the “real F. Scott Fitzgerald.” So what’s with all the praise? This was O’Hara’s first novel (published in 1934), but he also wrote BUtterfield 8 (made into a film with Elizabeth Taylor), and Ten North Frederick, which won the National Book Award. But he also had more stories than any other author to be published in The New Yorker.
The title refers to an ancient story, made famous in the modern era by W. Somerset Maugham.
A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions. Shortly, the servant comes home white and trembling and tells him that in the marketplace he was jostled by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, and she made a threatening gesture. Borrowing the merchant’s horse, he flees at top speed to Samarra, a distance of about 75 miles, where he believes Death will not find him. The merchant then goes to the marketplace and finds Death, and asks why she made the threatening gesture. She replies, “That was not a threatening gesture, 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.”
Like the servant, the characters in O’Hara’s book, particularly the protagonist Julian English, find their lives to be an exercise in futility. Despite the effort to escape Death, the servant has only run headlong into it. Julian English’s end is inevitable. These characters inhabit similar social circles — members of high society, well-respected in their professions, but desperately unhappy. And here, we find the similarities to the works of Fitzgerald.
Technically, not mush *happens* in an Appointment in Samarra. The action is catalyzed by Julian English’s split-second decision to throw a drink in the face of another partier who is annoying him. From there it seems all the characters base their actions on how they feel about this one incident. How will they side? Will they treat Julian differently? What about his wife?
Of course, the point it not really about a momentary lapse of politeness — it’s about the consequences of “rocking the boat”, of daring to have an unpopular opinion. And the ridiculous nature of any group of people who could so easily be dissolved by something so meaningless in the greater scheme of things.
The (perceived) futility of it all is demonstrated here:
When Caroline Walker fell in love with Julian English she was a little tired of him. That was the summer of 1926, one of the most unimportant years in the history of the United States, and the year in which Caroline Walker was sure her life had reached a pinnacle of uselessness. She was four years out of college then, and she was twenty-seven years old, which is as old as anyone ever gets, or at least she thought so at the time. Pg. 94
O’Hara certainly speaks with the voice of the Lost Generation and deserves to be counted among the ranks of great American authors. This reprinting from Penguin Classics will hopefully bring his stories to another generation of readers.
Many thanks to Lindsay with Penguin Classics for the review copy.
30 Apr 2013
8.26 x 5.23in
18 – AND UP