Originally published in 1934, John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra is still the only American novel I know that begins with a scene of a married couple—Luther and Irma Fliegler—having sex and on Christmas morning, no less. Later in the book, another married couple—Julian English, the novel’s protagonist, and his wife, Caroline—make love in the middle of Christmas afternoon. Julian has been dispatched on a disagreeable errand, and Caroline rewards him by waiting in their bedroom in a black lace negligee she calls her “whoring gown.” About their lovemaking, the novel says, “she was as passionate and as curious, as experimental and joyful as ever he was.”
Before O’Hara, sex in American novels—polite novels, anyway—was mostly adulterous, not something that proper married women engaged in, or if they did, they weren’t known to enjoy it. Appointment is a genuine love story, charged with eros but stripped of sentimentality, and the relationship between the Englishes is more convincing and more satisfying than that of, say, Gatsby and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, or Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. Though unfaithful to her, Julian can’t stop loving Caroline, and after O’Hara devotes a whole chapter to her intimate thoughts and sexual explorations before marriage, the reader can’t help falling a little in love with her, too. Caroline, for her part, reflects at the end of the book: “He was drunk, but he was Julian, drunk or not, and that was more than anyone else was.”
The speed with which the book was written may account for the urgency of its storytelling. O’Hara began it in December 1933, when he was just twenty-eight, and wrote it in something like white heat, finishing in a little under four months. Set in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a lightly disguised version of Pottsville, where O’Hara grew up, the entire action of Appointment in Samarra—Julian English’s whirlwind of self-destruction—takes place in just thirty-six hours, and its breakneck pace is startling and exciting. Even on a second reading, when you know what’s going to happen, you tear through it still not quite believing in what’s just ahead and what’s already been established by the novel’s epigraph, taken from W. Somerset Maugham’s play Sheppey (in which Death speaks of meeting a merchant in Samarra): an appointment in Samarra, we know from the beginning, is an appointment with death itself.
Julian’s various offenses, none of them terrible in themselves—throwing a drink at the country club bore Harry Reilly; coming on to the girlfriend of the local bootlegger, Ed Charney; getting into a fistfight with his friend Froggy Ogden, a one-armed World War I vet—swiftly become a torrent that feels both dizzying and inevitable. There’s an impatient, impetuous side to Julian—who isn’t quite thirty, we have to remind ourselves, and enjoys his own ruin even as it’s happening. After his brief tryst with the bootlegger’s girl, the book says: “Julian, lost in his coonskins, felt the tremendous excitement, the great thrilling lump in the chest and abdomen that comes before the administering of an unknown, well-deserved punishment. He knew he was in for it.”
What also makes Appointment seem like a young man’s book is the way it tries to pack in almost everything O’Hara knew about the world, which was quite a lot for a twenty-eight-year-old. He is well informed about sex, speakeasies and roadhouses, college fraternities and sororities, country clubs, coal mining, small-town journalism, big bands, the latest dance steps, Broadway shows, books, records, gangster slang, the right way to mix a high-ball, and cars—cars especially. O’Hara notices cars, and what they reveal about their owners, as carefully as does Irma Fliegler, who, lying in bed on that Christmas morning, can identify the cars out on the snowy street just from the sound each one makes driving by. Cars in this novel, where almost a dozen different brands are named, everything from a Stutz Bearcat to a Baker electric, are status symbols and emblems of progress but also trysting places, nests of refuge, and invitations to danger and recklessness.
Appointment is also authoritative about class and drinking—along with sex, O’Hara’s two other great themes. When the book opens, Julian English is already well on his way to becoming a precocious alcoholic, if he isn’t there already, and in one way the story of his downfall is really the story of a single, epic binge, ending with a giant highball he mixes for himself in a flower vase.
Alcohol in O’Hara is the great loosener, a potion that makes people feel sexy and amorous, and in his books set during Prohibition it’s also a powerful leveler, a solvent eating away at the foundations of the social order and mingling the country club set with gangsters and their girlfriends. Even the mixing of a living room cocktail, in a home as proper as Julian’s stiff-necked parents’, carries with it a whiff of corruption, and no one is exempt. In one surprising scene in Appointment, Julian shares a companionable drink in a country club locker room with Monsignor Creedon, the pastor of the local Catholic church, who has to say Mass the next morning. He hesitates, looking at his watch, and then says, “All right. I’ve time. I’ll have one with you.”
The O’Haras were Catholics, and well-to-do. John was the eldest of eight children, born in 1905 to a prominent Pottsville physician. The family lived on Mahantongo Street (Lantenengo Street in the novel, the town’s toniest neighborhood) in a mansion that once belonged to the Yuengling brewing family. They owned five automobiles, a weekend farm, and a string of show horses, and belonged to all the town’s best clubs. Yet for whatever reason, O’Hara felt his Irishness and his Catholicism marked him as an outsider, and he became an obsessive observer of social hierarchy; Appointment extends this awareness into an entire social taxonomy. There’s Lantenengo Street, where the country club set lives, and then, down the hill, Christiana Street, home to the town’s middle class: a butcher, a motorman, a freight clerk, two bookkeepers for the coal company, a Baptist minister, a garage mechanic. The Flieglers don’t belong to the country club: when they want a drink or two they go with their friends, other Pennsylvania Dutch couples—the Schaeffers, the Ziegenfusses, the Hartensteins—out to one of the roadhouses on the outskirts of town. Still farther out are the little coal mining villages, or “patches,” home to “the hunkeys, the schwackies, the roundheaders, the broleys,” who can’t afford bootleg liquor and drink boilo, or homemade moonshine, instead.
Especially as a young man O’Hara was probably a know-it-all, but his book doesn’t show off. It has some of the same factual density, the careful attention to small detail, as Updike’s Rabbit novels, also set in a small Pennsylvania town, where Rabbit even becomes a car dealer. “I guess I love this place,” a mostly sober Julian thinks, looking over a snowy Pennsylvania landscape, and the same is true of O’Hara, who in his writing returned again and again to Gibbsville, making it an entire miniature world, a northern Yoknapatawpha. If you want to know what it was like to live in 1930s America, Appointment in Samarra isn’t a bad place to start. And while the novel is dated in some ways, its stinging class awareness—its sense of everyone looking over his or her shoulder and scrabbling for a place on the social ladder—feels as current as the novels of Tom Wolfe.
Patrick O’Hara, John’s father, died when his son was twenty, leaving behind a mountain of debt. This, along with getting bounced from a series of prep schools, pretty much ended O’Hara’s dream of attending Yale, which was for him—or would have been, he imagined—what Princeton was for Fitzgerald. Instead he got a more varied education in bars and speakeasies and from working on the railroad, on an ocean liner, and as a hotel night clerk. But he did his real graduate work in a succession of newspaper city rooms, starting at the Pottsville Journal and ending at the New York Herald Tribune. O’Hara was a terrible newspaperman. He was always being fired for being tardy, hungover, or just plain surly. But he learned a reporter’s reverence for facts and sharpened what was already an acute ear for the way people spoke in real life.
In the late 1920s O’Hara started writing Talk of the Town pieces and short stories—“casuals,” they were called—for The New Yorker and began an association with that magazine that lasted some forty years, with occasional time-out for feuds and quarrels. He felt, perhaps rightly, that he was never as valued by The New Yorker as he should have been (his 247 stories are still an all-time record there), and all his life he carried a chip on his shoulder when it came to his literary reputation. He thought he deserved the Nobel Prize, and lobbied for it, just as he did for honorary degrees, which didn’t come, either. (When Kingman Brewster, Yale’s president, was asked why the university never gave O’Hara a degree, he replied, “Because he asked for it.”) O’Hara had the misfortune to work in the shadow of his contemporaries Hemingway and Faulkner, and by the end of his career, when his kind of social observation had gone out of fashion, critics picked on him mercilessly.
O’Hara was among the least autobiographical of writers, more interested in studying the world and its ways than in studying himself. But we can nevertheless catch a glimpse of him—the young O’Hara—in Julian English. On the one hand, English, whose very name proclaims him to be a member of the WASP ascendancy, is O’Hara’s revenge on the people who he felt had snubbed him. It’s the self-made Irishman Harry Reilly who wins in the end. But English and his creator nevertheless have a lot in common. They were both doctor’s sons (though O’Hara lets us know that Dr. English was famously and dangerously bad at skull surgery, something his own father was renowned for), and both were disappointments to their fathers, who didn’t bother to disguise it. Both liked to take a drink and were apt to pick fights when a little tight. Both liked pretty girls. (O’Hara was probably even more of a ladies’ man than Julian was.)
Julian has some of O’Hara’s cynicism and prickliness and also his social awareness. In a conversation with his secretary, Mary, Julian can’t help noticing that
she represented precisely what she came from: solid, respectable, Pennsylvania Dutch, Lutheran middle class; and when he thought about her, when she made her existence felt, when she actively represented what she stood for, he could feel the little office suddenly becoming overcrowded with a delegation of all the honest clerks and mechanics and housewives and Sunday School teachers and orphans—all the Christiana Street kind of people.
In some ways Julian, with his money, his beautiful wife, his perfectly tailored clothes, his starched collars and waxed-calf shoes, his Kappa Beta Phi key, and his assured position in society, is the person O’Hara dreamed of being. Yet in the novel—this is perhaps the crucial point of Appointment in Samarra—it’s not enough. There’s an emptiness in Julian, a sense that life has already offered him all there is. But O’Hara had still another quality: a toughness and grittiness, a determination to succeed and prove others wrong, that made him get up every morning—or, more likely, every afternoon—his head pounding, light another cigarette, and start typing.
Adapted from Charles McGrath’s introduction to Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara, to be published by Penguin Classics on April 30, 2013. Introduction copyright ©2013, Charles McGrath.