Pros: Characters, story, broad sense of humor
Cons: The end happens just a bit too quickly
The version of John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra I read is a paperback from 1964. I’ve had it for about 4 years now but decided it was finally time to go ahead and finish the short novel I’d started a few times in that span of time. Here is part of what one of the summaries says: “Like A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gadsby, Appointment in Samarra is one of the most unforgettable novels of our century.” This is mostly false.
The novel is set in O’Hara’s fictional creation Gibbsville, PA (the equivalent to Sinclair Lewis’s Zenith and Faulkner’s Jefferson). It covers the events of roughly 48 hours and back material on the salient characters.
The novel begins with Irma Fliegler listening to the sounds of Lantenengo Street, the main thoroughfare through the posh neighborhood of the same name. She is solidly middle-class, close in proximity to the town’s elite but not yet part of it. She sets the tone for the story which will be a type of soap opera of the moneyed class of Gibbsville—the easiest example here is her comparison of the region’s coal industries against the clean high end retail and banking industries (Irma yearns to be “new” money so her sympathies naturally lie with the already rich). She is up in the wee hours of Christmas morning 1930, as part of her solitary musings, she imagines the attendants an actions of members of the Lantenengo Country Club, among whose members are Julian and Caroline English, the protagonists of the novel.
Julian is the spoiled son of the city’s most popular doctor, Caroline the daughter of old money. He is impetuous and the childish example of the worst the Jazz Age cast of characters. Caroline is as much a part of that as she is the stable one of her household of two. Drunk, as he spends most of his time, Julian throws a drink in the face of another club member. This starts the waters held only slightly on the safe side of the gossip dam to flood past and over. The last two-thirds of the novel explain Julian’s attempts to right the situation that become more and more severe and excuses when his actions don’t have the effect he desires. It also chronicles Caroline’s attempts to maintain their social dignity while still supporting her husband whom she truly does love.
There can’t be a reasonable novel about the Jazz Age unless it contains some amount of ink to the illegal liquor trade. Gibbsville is not large enough and is too isolated to warrant a serious don—Ed Charney does speak a couple of lines, but is neither a fully realized character, nor remotely threatening. We get almost all of the “gangland” style atmosphere from a lieutenant, Al Grecco. Though a full-fledged character, Al’s role is to provide liquor and a tiny amount of potential danger.
I would rather not go into any further detail because I’d like to keep as much of it open as possible as an enticement to read the book.
Below the review itself, I go into some academic wanderings that try to dispel the comparison between Farewell and Gatsby and that a better comparison is Huck Finn. While I, obviously, think this discussion will make a reader want to pick up Samarra, I’ll be briefer here.
There are essentially two reasons I enjoyed the novel and recommend it. First is the solidness of the characters. They were deeply realized and it was easy for me to allow emotional investment without it feeling forced or cheated. Perhaps more to the point O’Hara obviously cares for each of the men and women he creates evidenced by the notion that he doesn’t present any character has irredeemable, or anywhere close to it. The book is somewhere in the 225-250 page range depending on which publication, so he is able to render these characters believable in a quick, economical way.
Primarily though, the novel is funny. It isn’t funny in the droll drawing-room way we can often be taught to expect from “serious” novels published in the 20s and 30s. One of my favorite comments is: “He resolved to . . . find out about the peculiarities of his native heath. Who did Kentucky think it was that it should claim exclusive rights on hill-billies?” That sort of biting humor drives most of the book. Even as the story moves on to its tragedy, the humor doesn’t go away, it just becomes more sarcastic, cynical—but still funny.
I really loved pretty much everyone in Gibbsville with a speaking part. I was sympathetic and empathetic as the story moved to the cliff-edge. But what kept me turning the pages was the easy sense of humor.
How we get to the end is the one gripe; it comes too fast. It makes sense, but the brevity O’Hara was able to use early on creating the characters isn’t quite so successful when creating the conditions for the end. So it felt rushed. Other than that, I have no problems recommending the novel highly.
Academic stuff below . . .
The Hemingway-Fitzgerald comparison has more to do with the fact that they were published around the same time. The rush to equate Samarra and Gatsby is obvious, but it is only true in the broad sense. Apart from the relative strength of a couple of female characters, I’m pretty much clueless as to what Samarra has in common with Farewell. I cover this at all to disabuse a reader from making a decision to avoid reading the novel because it is too closely related.
Samarra’s cousins are almost totally lacking in humor. Each seems to be maudlin, speaking to the romantic portions of a man’s psyche. Both the Hemingway and Fitzgerald works are mature; both contain solid language that can be a bit rough. This allows for each of the works to stay staples of high school lit classes. And this “seriousness” helps to maintain the impression that literature classes are things meant to slog through.
If a comparison to a novel is required, Samarra has far more in common with Huck Finn.
Twain’s novels were peopled by characters that spoke in a slang specific to their area and time. Specifically though, the opening of Huck Finn lists the sorts of verbiage the novel contains and the admonition that if you seek to find them, you will be shot. O’Hara’s ability with regard to slang/idiom is one reason he has not disappeared entirely from American lit. Like Twain, O’Hara doesn’t shy away from the profane. Each writer also speaks to the prejudices of his day—this is what often causes the most trouble with regards to whether a writer or a work can remain part of the literary canon. The blunter the investigation, the less likely the work or its writer will be part of that body.
With regard to the prejudices, Samarra denigrates Jews, the lower class, and gay men with a language honest at the time. The novel has a probable lesbian character that is praised more than not which was actually fairly common—(a masculine woman was preferable than an effete man and it points to the fact that a straight male writer can understand at least some motives attached to lesbians while either unable or afraid to do the same for a gay man). The novel raises questions about Catholics and makes an uneasy peace because Catholics are indirectly compared against members of the Klan (vocal members of the Klan who also owned businesses saw them fail when they lost every Catholic patron). So the tenuous tolerance is based on a spending/voting block rather than any concept of social equality. The novel, and perhaps Gibbsville as a whole, has few black characters. Of the caste/class concerns of the day, the white-black paradigm is missing. I have to say that not because I think it makes the work weak, it’s just something I can’t leave out by way of this level of analytical detail.
Similarly, sexually the novel pulls very few punches. Caroline is not just strong of character, she is strong as a sexual partner: she knows what she wants and says so in as much as publishers would allow. There is a stream-of-consciousness section where Caroline runs through some of the sexual expressions Molly Bloom has in the last chapter of Ulysses. Choosing to show some of the more carnal parts the female psyche means that they are true co-equals to the males in the novel, so the story adds that level of authenticity to the narrative.
As I mentioned way up at the first paragraph, O’Hara’s Gibbsville is very similar to Sinclair Lewis’s Zenith. Beyond just their fictional towns, Lewis and O’Hara have a similar talent and a similar fate. A couple of years ago, I read and reviewed a couple of books by Sinclair Lewis. Each man creates archetypal American characters in similar ways. Each man has largely been forgotten. Had there been a reason for them to be excluded from the canon of American letters when the amorphous committee met, I don’t think the reason is valid any longer. “Free Lewis, Free O’Hara” hehe.