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Reviews: Past Books Appointment in Samarra by John A'Hara

There was a merchant in Bagdad 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 market-place 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.”
-Somerset Maugham-

Appointment in Samarra, John O’Hara’s debut novel published in 1934, excels as social history, a portrait of a marriage, and a depiction of an alcoholic. Yet above all it is an exploration of the role fate plays in an individual life. Its epigraph – a quote from Somerset Maugham from which it gets its title – retells the ancient tale of a man who seeks to flee death only to find that in his very flight he keeps his destined appointment with it. O’Hara also presents his version of the truth concerning the consequences of the failure of parental love.

O’Hara expertly conjures for his readers his protagonist Julian English’s glamorous world. Picture the 1930’s country club set – the world of jet black tuxedos against pristine white shirts, long satin gowns, jewels and furs, and the melodies of Gershwin. The action of the narrative spans the Christmas holidays in 1930. In three short days Julian slides to his death. The strong opening chapter begins with a depiction of Lute and Irma Fliegler’s affectionate marriage. They live near Julian’s house on Lantenengo Street, and Lute works for Julian at the Gibbsville Cadillac Motor-Car Company. It is through the Flieglers that O’Hara allows a bit of human affirmation to gleam through the dark folds of the social fabric he has woven.

Thirty-year-old Julian is married to Caroline Walker, one of Gibbsville’s most sought-after women. She, like her husband comes from money. O’Hara informs us that she is a graduate of Bryn Mawr where she acquired a permanent “tendency to enthusiasms.” In contrast to the stable and content marriage of the Flieglers, the Englishes have a stormy and shallow relationship. Critics tell us that O’Hara attributes to Julian many of his own character traits – for example, an innate abrasiveness, a chip-on-the-shoulder, and a curious compulsion to offend those he should court.

Like O’Hara himself, the fictional Julian has been permanently damaged by his early relationship with his father, who like O’Hara’s father was a medical doctor. The autobiographical dimension lends a certain tone of veracity to the novel. Because of a boyhood prank – shoplifting with a gang of boys he wanted to impress – Julian is deprived of his father’s affection. Dr. English over-reacted to his son’s mischief because his own father (Julian’s grandfather) had long ago embezzled funds from his bank and then committed suicide. Now and again, to foreshadow Julian’s untimely death, O’Hara mentions the grandfather’s suicide.

The paternal rejection was crucial in forming Julian’s ambivalent persona. On one hand he sneers at the medical profession, respectability, restraint and politeness. On the other hand he wants to be liked, accepted, admired, to receive from others what he cannot have from his father. He develops a charm which is enhanced by his good looks. The highest social levels of Gibbsville society are welcoming to him. As the novel unfolds it becomes apparent that Julian English has never grown up emotionally. Tragically, he needs to think of himself as popular and well-liked because inwardly he fears the opposite. Also, he is torn between his strong affinity for Gibbsville and an uncertainty about whether he belongs there.

Following an evening of dining, dancing and drinking at the country club’s Christmas Eve Ball, Julian and Caroline are winding down in the club’s smoking room with several other couples, all close friends. O’Hara explains, “They were the spenders and drinkers and socially secure, who could thumb their noses and not answer to anyone except their own families.”

Harry Reilly, not a member of the “in” group is regaling anyone who will listen with his Irish jokes. Reilly is a Catholic from a tiny mining village who has recently made a lot of money, some of which he has loaned to Julian who as president of the Gibbsville Cadillac Motor-Car Company is often in need of funds. Julian despises Reilly, not only because he must resort to asking him for money, but also because Reilly is always attentive to Caroline. Very drunk, Julian loses control during one of Reilly’s never-ending, tedious jokes and throws his drink in Reilly’s face.

This is the first of three times that Julian behaves deplorably, and it is the episode on which the narrative will build. Interestingly, it occurs “off-stage,” like an incident in Greek drama. O’Hara simply relates that a breathless man appears in the club’s main room and announces, “Julian English. He just threw a highball in Reilly’s face.”

When Julian awakens on Christmas morning, he gradually remembers the worst thing he did the night before. “He remembered throwing a drink at Harry Reilly, throwing it in his fat, cheap, gross Irish face.”

By this time in the book O’Hara has introduced Al Grecco, a young gangster-type who works for Ed Charney, a powerful underworld bootlegger and the owner of a popular roadhouse called the Stage Coach, “where the drinks were six bits a piece and there was dancing and a hat-check girl and waiters in uniform.” The evening of December 25th Charney dispatches Al Grecco to the Stage Coach to keep an eye on Charney’s mistress, Helene, a floozy torch singer. Julian and Caroline have attended yet another dance at the country club, but finding it boring they have left with two other couples to finish their evening at the Stage Coach. Lute and Irma Fliegler with a group of friends are also there. As Julian’s employee, Lute is, of course, not of Julian’s social class. Julian is sloppy with drink, and again commits an unforgiveable transgression. Although Al Grecco is conscientiously keeping tabs on Helene, Julian somehow hustles her out to the parking lot while everyone watches. After Helene returns to the Stage Coach, Julian passes out in his car. He has displayed a major lack of judgment for the second time. It is after three a.m. when Caroline and her companions drive him home.

O’Hara is at his best when chronicling day three, the day that culminates in his protagonist’s death. Despite his hangover Julian gets out of bed that morning intent on going to his office to do necessary end-of-the-year tasks. But first he picks a quarrel with the household cook, Mrs. Grady “Oh, go boil the eggs, will you, and for Christ’s sake shut up.” He then muses: “There it was again. Servants, cops, waiters in restaurants, ushers in theaters – he could hate them more than persons who threatened him with real harm. He hated himself for his outbursts against them, but why in the name of God, when they had so little to do, couldn’t they do it right and move on out of his life?”

We learn that Julian and Caroline are to give a party that evening and that Al Grecco will be delivering a case of scotch and a case of champagne to their home. At the office, where his hangover does not “bother him inordinately,” Julian endeavors to write out a recapitulation of the year’s business for the Gibbsville Cadillac Motor-Car Company. Lute is at the office, and he, too, constructs a recapitulation of sorts, telling off his boss in no uncertain terms: “Well, I don’t want you to take offense at this…but you been making a fool of yourself, and last night at the Stage Coach…you oughtn’t to done that, taking that dame out, that torch singer. You know whose girl she is? Ed Charney’s. One of the best friends we have, in a business way…any time one of his bootlegger friends is in the market for a high-priced automobile, Ed sees to it that we make the sale.”

Caroline phones Julian at his office to tell him two things. If he ever speaks to Mrs. Grady again in the manner he had that morning, she is “through” with him, and “If you come home drunk this afternoon…I’ll simply call every person we’ve invited and call off the party.”

After talking to Caroline, Julian drives to the Gibbsville Club (not to be confused with the country club) and there encounters Froggy Ogden, a man who lost an arm in World War I and a man Julian believes to be his best friend. Froggy berates Julian for throwing the drink at Reilly and for his conduct with Helene. For as long as Julian could remember, Froggy had been a pillar shoring up his existence. Now Froggy tells him he has never liked him. A group of members only slightly known to Julian somehow enter the conversation, and, predictably, Julian loses his temper and punches one of them in the mouth, thus committing his third infraction in as many days.

The fact that Froggy hates him crushes Julian with unbearable emotional weight. Added to this, Caro has called off the party and gone to sleep at her mother’s house. It comes as no surprise that Julian intentionally drinks himself into a stupor and kills himself in his own garage with carbon monoxide poisoning.

It could be said that it was alcohol that forced Julian to keep his appointment with death. But that begs the question. Why did he drink? At what point in his life did a transformation take place. Inevitably, for all emotionally mature adults there comes a time when what we do becomes what we are.

Could Caroline have done more to save her husband? In Chapter Five, the midpoint of the book, O’Hara slows the narrative’s fast-paced episodes, steering away from the four previous chapters to insert a flashback about Caroline’s life before Julian. It’s a compelling chapter that gives the character of Caroline an immediacy it had up until now been lacking. Caroline’s helplessness in the face of her husband’s disintegration is completely credible. Though his sexual prowess with her was a source of pride for Julian, he was too self-involved to maintain a meaningful relationship with Caroline. Her thoughts after his suicide suggest that she would have gone back to him.

Concerning the idea that it was fate that caused Julian’s death, O’Hara underscores the fact that what we think of as fate is nothing more than the perceptions of others’ actions combining with reactions to those perceptions. Julian’s suicide was prompted by his emotional immaturity, a state of mind that triggered a series of drunken impulsive acts.

Julian’s suicide is especially grim because evidence shows that at the last minute he changed hi mind. He is clear-headed enough to make certain all the garage windows are tightly closed, and to smash the dashboard clock to establish a time of death. The position of his body in the car reveals that he tried to raise himself up just before the carbon monoxide overcomes him.