“Is there anything I haven’t done? Is there anyone I haven’t offended?” – Julian English in John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra
In John O’Hara’s bracing first novel, Appointment in Samarra, the anti-hero Julian English’s self-destructive bender and depressed musings are typical not only of Julian, but of the brilliant, brash O’Hara. According to Fran Lebowitz, O’Hara was an underrated writer “because every single person he knew hated him.” Though Appointment in Samarra is considered his best novel, his second novel, BUtterfield 8, is almost equally brilliant, despite its exasperating, sexist ending. These two well-written, fast-paced Depression novels, published in 1934 and 1935 respectively, deserve a revival.
Appointment in Samarra takes place during the Christmas season, which involves much partying and a lot of drinking. O’Hara is a shrewd sociologist as well as a novelist: he comments on his characters’ religious affiliations, social clubs, and family origins. He subtly probes the class strata during the Depression and Prohibition. The characters are residents of Gibbstown, Pennsylvania, which is based on Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where O’Hara grew up.
Class and sex drive the plot. The novel opens with a middle-class couple, Luther and Irma Fliegler, having happy sex on Christmas morning. Afterwards they discuss their prospects of acceptance at the most prestigious club in town. Everyone in Gibbstown is obsessed with class and clubs; or if not, and if they are of a lower class, they are knowledgable of the class demarcations. The well-paid gangster, Al Grecco, is a nice, sentimental guy who works for Ed Charney, because Al can get no other job during the Depression. His job description varies from day to day. On Christmas he is asked to guard Ed’s mistress, a hard-drinking singer at a bar, from the attentions of men, while Ed stays home with his family. But Al ’s main job is to drive to different towns to buy bootleg gin and whisky, and then sell it to private customers and speakeasy owners. There is an undercurrent of violence in Pottstown: Al can get violent if Ed insists. And some of the Gibbstown residents are smouldering.
The protagonist, Julian, is sui generis in Gibbstown. He is a successful, Yale-educated, moody, cynical, sometimes charming, yet pugnacious owner of a Cadillac dealership, with a beautiful wife and a lovely house, and a group of friends he has known since childhood. And yet he manages over a period spanning 36 hours to alienate everyone he knows after he throws a drink in the face of Harry Reilly, simply because he hates him.
This quickly becomes a scandal and Julian is the talk of the town. Caroline is exasperated: she points out that Harry Reilly will make a bad enemy. For one thing, he has invested a lot of money in the Cadillac dealership. For another, he is Catholic, and all the Catholics stick together. And, indeed, Harry refuses to see Julian when he goes to apologize.
Yet privileged Julian gets into deeper and deeper trouble as he continues to drink. The next day he gets into a fight at the club with his childhood friend, a one-armed war veteran, who needles him about throwing a drink at Reilly, and says he has always hated him, and despises him for being at Yale during the war.
Julian is an unsympathetic character, and yet his downward path, disturbing as it may be, gives him a kind of pathos. We dither: If only he hadn’t been so drunkenly belligerent… If only he hadn’t come on to three different women in a short time span (though nothing happens)… And if only he had listened to his charming wife Caroline, who adores him but becomes increasingly annoyed as Julian becomes more self-destructive during his bender. His whole life is threatened because of the falling of social dominos. And yet he goes on drinking.
So why do I love this novel so much when Julian is such a wreck ? He is unlikable, but tragically depressed, as O’Hara must have been. I don’t want the things Julian had or the things O’Hara wanted. O’Hara was obsessed with Yale and lobbied to get an honorary degree. They wouldn’t give it to him. They were too snobbish. He also wanted the Nobel Prize. Did O’Hara set his sights too high? Hubris? No, I don’t think so. Clearly he was a great American writer. A pity he is underread.
O’Hara has the record for publishing the most short stories of any writer in The New Yorker: 247. In 1955 he won the National Book Award for Ten North Frederic. Even then he didn’t feel he got the respect he deserved. A funny thing about writers: they need more and more praise. They can be obnoxious and narcissistic. And yet their books can be brilliant. Read on.