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Appointment in Samarra (1934)

by John O'Hara

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1,812459,522 (3.81)94
"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"--Amazon.com.… (more)

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» See also 94 mentions

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Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
I really despised the main character of this novel. I was glad he had an appointment in Samarra. ( )
  sturlington | May 28, 2024 |
Most people will be familiar with the parable that the title alludes to, in which a man, encountering death in a Baghdad bazaar, immediately flees to the distant city of Samarra in hopes of alluding his fate ... only to find death waiting for him there, explaining: "I, too, was surprised to encounter you at the market, as our appointment was always in Samarra." The idea being that there's no escaping fate once it has you in its sites.

This is certainly the plight of Julian English, the protagonist of this tale of upper middle class WASPS in 1930s Gibbsville, Illinois. Julian's the owner of a prosperous Cadillac dealership, husband to a wife who genuinely loves him (in her whiny 1930s way), with a social life that revolves around the local country club and its WASPy members. But in the course of an eventful two days, fate relentlessly hunts our golden boy down, the result of a combination of misbehaviour, mischance, misapprehension, and not an insignificant measure of hubristic overreach, as Julian (along with many other characters in this novel) consistently reaches for more than he needs or wants.

O'Hara's claim to fame is that he was, at one time, the most prolific contributor of tales to the New Yorker magazine, and boy does this read like something Woody Allen would pen. It's well written and crafted, but the incessant whininess of the characters can get a little fatiguing. With the exception of a subplot involving a low-level hood named Al Grecco, everyone here is dealing with WASP-y first-world problems: attending the "right" college, driving the "right" car, marrying the "right" spouse, living in the "right" neighborhood, attending the "right" social events and parties, drinking, gossiping, and judging each other relentlessly. The crimes that destroy Julius aren't crimes in the legal sense, but crimes against the norms of his class: throwing a drink into the face of a social peer, drinking too much, humiliating his wife.

Almost 100yrs later, some aspects of this tale - the country club dances & raccoon coats, the male-centric marriages, the insane drinking - may feel like a time capsule. Alas, however, the central themes of this tale - social gamesmanship and snobbery, hypocrisy, hubris & self-emoliation - are timeless. ( )
  Dorritt | Apr 3, 2024 |
A sort of inverted The Scarlet Letter peopled by dreary snobs, John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra is a decent – though limited – idea let down by the author's indulgence and ennui; a long-winded joke that I was tired of long before the punchline.

Set in Christmas 1930 amongst the well-to-do WASPs of a Pennsylvania milieu, O'Hara's novel begins with an epigraph quoting W. Somerset Maugham's 'Appointment in Samarra' fable, about a man who flees to the town of Samarra after seeing the Grim Reaper in a Baghdad marketplace. When questioned on this, the Grim Reaper expresses bemusement, because he had not expected to see him in Baghdad: they had an appointment in Samarra. O'Hara's novel is pretty much a mechanism reiterating this tale, but whereas Maugham told it succinctly and evocatively in a single paragraph, O'Hara drags it out to novel length and to lesser effect.

In O'Hara's version, a slight, vain, upper-class wet named Julian English has a moment of pique at a dinner party, and throws his drink in the face of one of his peers, Harry Reilly. Julian then suffers the banal fallout of this act – amounting to some mild and ineffectual disapproval from his social circle – but, tying himself in knots over this nonsense and fearing retaliation from the well-connected Harry, Julian begins a downward spiral. Fulfilling the twist of the 'Appointment in Samarra' fable, there's a rewarding moment of bathos at the end as it turns out a bemused Harry has not been plotting any revenge at all, and still thinks relatively highly of Julian – on the rare occasions he thinks of him at all.

It's a cute idea, but O'Hara is painfully serious about the whole thing. If you read a biography of the author, he comes across as an inveterate and insufferable snob, and this also comes across in Appointment in Samarra. The depiction of Julian's social scene – with the town of Gibbsville being a fictional carbon-copy of the town O'Hara himself was raised in – would only really be tolerable if there was an element of satire to it, whether black or comic, but there is none. Instead, there is an indulgent morass of WASP frippery, some inconsequential writerly tangents that any merciful editor would have excised, and scarce few characters who transcend the cardboard cutouts O'Hara has designated for them. The book is quite well-written but the indulgence spoils it, and the ending is anti-climactic. Appointment in Samarra might be respectable enough, but it is disappointing and doesn't reward the amount of effort one must put into it. A largely shallow tale about some shallow people. ( )
1 vote MikeFutcher | Mar 10, 2024 |
Once things start unraveling for Julian English, the tragic hero of this small-town hero-to-zero tale, they do so exponentially. The pacing here is terrific — somehow English's decline spins out of control against the oh-so-static backdrop of the well-to-do set he's a part of. So there's a frantic kind of parallax going on as the more things change for Julian, the more they stay the same for everyone else. This is an essential entry in the canon of self-destruction imo, because of course there's no real reason why it has to happen — like the scariest downward-spirals, it just has to be that way.

Also a very interesting book for the way it portrays its characters' sex-lives. It's realistic and mature, even by today's standards I think. ( )
  yarb | Apr 29, 2022 |
Definitely did not use a ghost writer, unlike some other presidents. ( )
  AZBob1951 | Oct 27, 2021 |
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» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
O'Hara, JohnAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gower, NeilCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hill, JamesCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maurer, AlfredCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McGrath, CharlesIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schab, Karin vonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Updike, JohnIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"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"--Amazon.com.

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