Once among the best-selling novelists in the country, John O’Hara has largely fallen by the literary wayside since his death in 1970. The many movies made from his books, including BUtterfield 8 and Pal Joey, still cycle through on old movie channels, but his readership is scant compared to such near-contemporaries as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Penguin Classics hopes to resurrect O’Hara’s reputation by issuing new editions of four of his novels this year, beginning with his first, Appointment in Samarra, originally published in 1934.
Appointment in Samarra is often compared to The Great Gatsby, and there are some surface similarities in its portrayal of Jazz Age egotism and excess. The Great Gatsby, though, is a lyrical work, given to poetic digressions and an almost languorous nostalgia. Appointment in Samarra is a much grittier, unsentimental novel, driven by pages of colloquial conversation (a talent for which O’Hara was justly renowned) and much more blatant in exploring the underside of everyday human behavior. Indeed, with its frank discussions and depictions of sex, it most surely was considered a “dirty” book when it first appeared.
O’Hara is an expert at depicting the idiosyncrasies of class.
Opening on Christmas Eve, 1930, and unfolding over the ensuing 48 hours, the increasingly foreboding story traces the self-destruction of Julian English, the 30-year-old owner of a Cadillac dealership in the provincial town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania (a not-at-all-disguised version of O’Hara’s hometown of Pottsville). Julian and his cohorts are members of what we would today call the upper-middle class, but was then referred to as the Country Club Set. Money and booze flow freely, and drunkenness is a chronic state of affairs—especially for poor Julian. While inebriated, he throws a drink in the face of another partygoer, Harry Reilly. It is a spontaneous and not particularly malicious act, but its consequences will ripple far.
In this small town, with its closely defined roles, interpretations of Julian’s act vary. For instance, Reilly is a wealthy Catholic in a largely Protestant town, so his churchmen quietly rally behind him, jeopardizing some of Julian’s business. As Julian reacts with a curious blend of privileged defiance and nagging self-doubt, he makes matters far worse by carrying on with a nightclub singer, the mistress of a local mob boss. Soon, it seems that all sorts of people have a reason to wish Julian dead, not least of all his wife, Caroline, whom he loves with a passion that is nonetheless too weak to keep him from philandering.
The relationship between Julian and his wife is the most intriguing, well-detailed aspect of the novel, and a central chapter about Caroline is its strongest section. O’Hara beautifully gets inside the head of this young woman, emblematic of a certain type of girl of that era, who seems to have the world on a string but deserves more than the circumscribed choices she is given. Caroline has a much more shaded inner life than, say, Daisy Buchanan, which makes her role in the subsequent events feel more concrete.
O’Hara is so expert at depicting the idiosyncrasies of class in this particular time and place, that one can almost read Appointment in Samarra as a work of ethnography—albeit a breezy and profane one. This talent for realism is perhaps both O’Hara’s greatest appeal and the thing that has kept him from the pantheon of 20th-century writers where he so eagerly wished to dwell. O’Hara was less poet than teller of tales, but his work still maintains its own haunting resonance.