Appointment in Samarra
Place, it seems, serves two functions for American novelists. For some, it acts as the core of their writing. Try and imagine Wharton without the geo-social circuit of the New York old-money crowd, Steinbeck without California or Faulkner without Yoknapatawpha County, Miss. This even holds true in popular novels: think of Elmore Leonard mining the demimondes of Florida and Detroit.
There is, though, an entirely countervailing behavior among some of our finest writers. This crew is intent not just on running away from their origins, but on sealing them in a grave, smothered by all the obloquy their talent brings to the task as they ensconce themselves in a new, literary life often centered in New York. The prime example is Sinclair Lewis, skewering the towns and cities of the upper prairies in Babbitt, Main Street and other titles.
Well, what Minnesota is to Lewis, Pennsylvania is to John O’Hara.
A good son of Pottsville, PA, (also home to the Yuengling brewery), O’Hara made his mark in New York as a short story writer although his novels include the present volume, A Rage to Live and BUtterfield 8, the last made into a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor for which she won her first Best Actress Oscar. He’s probably most well-known for arch representations of socialites and the allegedly better classes. Appointment in Samarra, his first novel, sets the tone for all that follow.
Set in the fictional Gibbsville, Samarra is the story of Julian English, a privileged young man on the way to his doom. English is a member of Gibbsville’s smart set but what everyone sees is merely a veneer. An auto dealer, Cadillac no less, English is archetypically dissipated. Unhappily married to a real looker who thought she’d married up, grandson of an embezzler, son of a doctor trying to live down his own father’s shame, Julian drinks. And when he drinks he lashes out at everything that irks him.
When I say lash I literally mean lash. Julian tosses a drink in a fellow club member’s face. He slugs someone. He takes the local mobster’s girl out to his car in front of his wife. And all the time he’s thinking about asking some of these same people for financial help to save his business. English’s inner fury knows no limits–the one-armed war hero gets the same physical abuse as anyone else.
O’Hara has a reputation as a master of dialog. I’m not sure people ever spoke exactly like this, but it’s closer to reality than a lot. As is the jumping in the car and just driving, pointlessly, aimlessly, going somewhere, getting nowhere. My grandmother used to say “Blessed are they who go in circles.” There’s lots of aimless driving and circling in Gibbsville. No one, it seems can escape. That’s really the point here, I think. And the epigram, from Somerset Maugham, drives that home.
There are, for me, a few bum notes. These are mostly detail things that you wouldn’t notice if you didn’t live here. Like Julian’s wife, thinking back to the love that might have been, taking a drive to Jones Beach with the beau. The timing’s a little vague but it may not have been possible to drive to Jones Beach at the time the incident occurred. A minor incident but these things grate on me. Notice I’m oblivious to what may or may not be wrong about Gibbs/Pottsville. It’s that place thing writ small.
Appointment in Samarra has made it to all sorts of lists of important books. As an example of 20th century American literature it stands up with the rest. I’m just not sure it’s worth the fuss.