Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

Julian English sat there watching him, through eyes that he permitted to appear sleepier than they felt.  Why, he wondered, did he hate Harry Reilly?  Why couldn't he stand him?  What was there about Reilly that caused him to say to himself: "If he starts one more of those moth-eaten stories I'll throw this drink in his face."  But he knew he would not throw this drink or any other drink in Harry Reilly's face.  Still, it was fun to think about... Yes, it would be fun to watch.  The whole drink, including the three round-cornered lumps of ice.  At least one lump would hit Reilly in the eye, and the liquid would splash all over his shirt, slowly wilting it as the Scotch and soda trickled down the bosom to the crevice at the waistcoat.  The other people would stand up in amazed confusion.  "Why, Ju!" they would say.  Caroline would say, "Julian!"

Appointment in Samarra begins with Julian English, a member of the social elite in the medium-sized town of Gibbsville, PA, drunkenly throws a drink in the face of a man he dislikes.  This relatively minor crime sets into motion a series of events that leads to Julian becoming a social and professional pariah, the dissolution of his marriage, and eventually--spoiler alert--his own suicide.

I knew that about the novel going in, and expected it to be something like the short-lived NBC series The Slap--about how the repercussions of a small misdeed snowball into something dramatic and chaotic.  But that's not really the way that it plays out in Appointment in Samarra.  O'Hara teases us with the possibility that the social world will collapse around Julian.  Julian worries, for instance, that his assault on Harry means that the Catholic bloc in Gibbsville has turned against him, customers he needs as a Cadillac dealer.  O'Hara introduces a minor mobster, and gives him immense "screen time" to suggest that somehow Julian will end up in trouble with the mob--and he does, but it blows over quickly.  No, it's not the actual collapse but the threat of collapse that causes Julian, a hard drinker and a weaker man than he would confess to, to get drunk, and climb into his own car, running in the driveway.

Fran Lebowitz called O'Hara "the real F. Scott Fitzgerald."  You can see what she's talking about: the corruption of the social scene, the burden of wealth, it's all there.  But The Great Gatsby, for all its essential sadness, takes place on a grand stage.  It's a tragedy in the Greek sense; the downfall of a great man.  The sadness of Appointment in Samarra is of a different kind.  Julian's suicide is affecting because it seems so pointless.  His marriage would have survived.  His social standing would have too, but if it hadn't, what then?  Gibbsville is hardly New York City--it's more like the small, snow-covered Midwestern towns that Nick Carraway dreams of returning to.  In his intoxication, Julian wants his suicide to be what a lot of suicides want--a grand gesture that will alter the landscape of those around him.  In the end, the smallness of the landscape makes the gesture small.  When it's all over, there's no catharsis to be had here; just a bitter taste in your mouth.

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