Next up in my pile of novels that people had kindly given me, was Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara. A couple of years back I had noticed that this book featured in both the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list and the TIME Magazine 100 best English-language novels published since 1923 list, which piqued my interest. I then looked up some information about the novel, and decided it definitely sounded like my kind of read.

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

Fellow book blogger Robert Bruce (over at 101books.net) mentioned in his review of the novel last year that some have referred to Appointment in Samarra as a “poor man’s Gatsby”, and having now read the novel, I can see why. Within the world of this novel we meet not only the rich and the elite, but also bootleggers and gangsters, mistresses and, ultimately, Death.The setting of the book is 1930s America and the main character is a privileged young man named Julian English, who is part of the social elite of his home town.

However, despite everything that he has going for him, including a good job (the owner of a Cadillac dealership, no less), a lovely home, a beautiful wife, society friends, and a certain amount of natural charm, Julian English is somehow dissatisfied with his lot. Yes, as with The Great Gatsby, here too, it seems that the great American Dream is not quite able to deliver all that it promises.

Be in no doubt: this is a cynical and darkly comic exposé of the reality behind the façade of 1930s respectability and outward success.

The essence of the plot it that, over the course of a few days between Christmas and New Year, Julian English makes several impulsive and terrible decisions, which lead to his rapid downfall and eventual death.

One of the interesting things about O’Hara’s novel is the sense of inevitability that hangs over Julian’s demise. In fact, the very title that O’Hara has chosen refers to an old vignette told by W. Somerset Maugham, an extract of which is printed as an epigraph for the novel. I will provide the full epigraph here as it does convey something of the essence of the novel:

Death speaks:
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.
Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

So, from the start, there is a tangible sense of foreboding hanging over Julian’s life and all that he does. Despite Julian doing some pretty dumb things, you feel that if he were someone else, he might still be able to save himself if he but set his mind to it, yet he seems beyond trying. So, it is a little painful to watch him carry out his silly impulses, which so damage him and his wife and family, yet as a reader you find yourself totally hooked on the narrative, eager to read on.  In fact, whilst the subject matter is a little bleak, this is a fantastically well written book, and I have to say that I enjoyed reading it immensely.

O’Hara shows a real talent for dialogue and for using flashbacks very effectively. As I have stated in previous posts, I think that the real art of good fiction writing is in being able to “show, not tell” your readers what a character is like, what impact their actions have on others, etc., and John O’Hara certainly demonstrates this skill here. Julian English’s ultimate failure in love, in building authentic relationships, and in finding any kind of meaning in his life is skilfully conveyed through the different perspectives and recollections of his contemporaries.

Appointment in Samarra is also a great example of how a very simple plot can still produce literature of the highest quality. Within the 250-odd pages of this novel, John O’Hara creates a vivid community of characters, invents several great set-pieces, and shines a light on all sorts of aspects of society.

This is perhaps not a perfect novel (it is not quite Gatsby!), but it is very good, and I am going to add it to My Top 50 novels list.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

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