Appointment in Samarra – Book #4

I don’t think most people read Appointment in Samarra. I think it belongs in whatever list you make about the very greatest American novels. It may have fallen out of style even after people such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway (and John Updike, if you’re into that sort of thing) rained praise on it. But The Great Gatsby, written nine years earlier, has roundly eclipsed O’Hara’s masterwork in the public imagination.

Which is a shame, because there’s a way that Samarra is an important counterweight to Gatsby’s often glossy sensibilities (undercurrents that the Baz Luhrmann version lifts up and sets to some Jay-Z for good measure).

Gatsby’s got Nick as its moral compass – someone the reader can safely relate to. And Gatsby himself has darkness about him, to be sure, but he’s also a sympathetic figure. You’re safe hating Tom, of course, and Daisy, despite her early promise, doesn’t end up being more than the “beautiful fool” she hopes her daughter will grow up to be. Or at least she settles into the status that just about everyone else in the book is seeking.

Samarra is also a book about social status. Instead of West Egg, it’s got Lantenengo Street – where all the established and moneyed families in the coal town of Gibbsbille live.

But Samarra definitely lacks a protagonist, and if there’s a moral center I can’t find it. In some ways, it’s the opposite of Snow Crash. Like that novel, Samarra has a pretty tightly paced plot that happens over just a few days. But all of the action seems to happen within a few miles of a suffocatingly small town where the past and the future don’t particularly inform the present.

The main character, Julian English, is bad. Not evil, just human and careless and without too much to make him interesting – to himself or to readers – other than his downfall. Over the few days that the book spans, English goes from throwing a drink in his friend’s face to suicide, with plenty of other bad stuff along the way. It’s not a tragedy, though. To be a tragedy, English would have to have (at minimum) a trajectory and redeeming qualities. Samarra is just a story about a man who drinks too much and doesn’t know the first thing to do except coast along with all of the advantages he has been given.

Fitzgerald’s like a ghost that inhabits the book. O’Hara or his characters mention the great writer a few times. Here’s my favorite of these passages, used to describe the first person that Caroline (Julian English’s eventual wife) loved:

“His chief claim to distinction was that he had known Scott Fitzgerald at Princeton, and that made him in Caroline’s eyes an ambassador from an interesting country, full of interesting people whom she wanted to meet and see in action. She did not know, of course, that she was a member in good standing of the community which she thought Joe Montgomery represented, which Fitzgerald wrote about.”

These characters want to be in interesting places, with interesting people, doing interesting things. Instead, they have banal conversations with other self-centered status seekers, and smoke, and drink, and plan the next party, which will be absolutely delightful, and when they are done there’s nothing left but to do it again. When Julian goes veering off the rails, there’s nobody to stop him. Even he doesn’t understand what’s happening. But he does assert his agency at the end – and in this respect at least, he’s better than Tom, who just fades back into his world of unaccountable privilege.

Enough about the Gastby stuff. The relationship between the texts was definitely intentional. O’Hara, by all accounts, was a huge admirer, and around the time this book was written, he exchanged letters with Fitzgerald. In 1934, O’Hara published Samarra, his first novel. That same year, Fitzgerald was well into the drink – he was hospitalized nine times and barely published Tender is the Night.

O’Hara himself certainly had his problems with drink, and most people say that after this brilliant book he didn’t have anything left in the tank. I disagree – there’s a lot of good there yet. I still think his clippy prose, easy dialogue, and willingness to look straight at deeply flawed people holds up across most of his work.

The book’s title comes from a story where Death sees a man in the marketplace in one city. Scared to see Death, the man flees to Samarra. Later, Death says that he was surprised to see the man in the market because they had a plan to meet later in Samarra.

In other words, there’s no avoiding fate. The rich people of Gibbsville, for all of their resources and noble breeding, fail and die without much spectacle beyond the newspaper’s social pages. And more drinks are poured in their honor.

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