Appointment in Samarra, by John O’Hara

Appointment in Samarra, by John O'Hara

Appointment in Samarra vividly traces Julian English’s calamitous and seemingly inexplicable path of destruction in 72 hours during the Christmas holidays of 1930. In his early thirties and from an affluent family, college educated, manager of a thriving Cadillac dealership in small town Pennsylvania, married to an attractive and admired woman – there would seem to be nothing significant to explain English’s reckless behaviour and decisions that precipitiously eradicate his professional, personal and even spiritual footing in a matter of days. Even more so than Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel that captures a doomed character’s similarly compressed and irrevocable slide into oblivion, Appointment in Samarra is a breathless read, where one simply can’t look away until it’s over.

O’Hara’s novel showed great daring for its time, with respect to language and subject matter, touching on everything from alcohol consumption to sexual relations, marital infidelity, criminal activities and even suggestive clothing. The narration and dialogue are brisk and jazzy, albeit somewhat dated, but still vibrantly capture the idiom of the Prohibition and pre Great Depression era. The propulsive action of the story – wherein English lurches from one social gaffe to increasingly more disastrous, perverse behaviours – while compelling in its own right, almost overshadows O’Hara’s equal daring with more experimental themes and stylistic approaches. These include the suggestions that English’s bewildering flameout is somehow predestined, suggested by the novel’s epigraph, hinted at in references to English’s grandfather and even prefigured by the time frame of the novel, where there are mentions of the looming economic and social storm clouds of the Depression. As well, O’Hara employs shifting voices and points of view, and even some striking stream of consciousness narration.

Finally, O’Hara brings the novel to a startling non sequitur of a conclusion that drives home a memorable, almost existential lesson: the irony of how one’s misdemeanours might never be forgotten, but one’s essence and value can vaporize from memory as soon as one is gone.

One thought on “Appointment in Samarra, by John O’Hara

  1. lynnep

    Yes! O’Hara is terribly underappreciated these days. Appointment was one of those novels that showed me how devastating modern fiction could be in dealing with a non-heroic protagonist.


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