Appointment in Samarra
By John O’Hara
Vintage Books (Random House, Inc.)
My husband read this book a while ago and kept telling me I should read it. It takes place in the area of Pennsylvania we grew up in, although the town featured in the book is fictitious. He found it fascinating but I didn’t think I would like it so I put it off. I felt I needed to be in the mood for it.
The story takes place over a three day period in a town called Gibbsville, PA. It’s December 1930 and the holiday party season is in full gear. There are celebrations, dances, late nights, and lots of liquor. Julian and Caroline English are among the social elite of Gibbsville, the envy of many in town. At a party one night, Julian, after a lot of alcohol, throws a drink in the face of Harry Reilly and slowly begins his decent toward self-destruction.
This book is all about small town life — the bitter feelings that emerge among family and friends and the small town politics that make the world go around. O’Hara used Pottsville, PA as the base for the fictional Gibbsville. I grew up about an hour north of Pottsville so I’m very familiar with small town Pennsylvania life.
For O’Hara, nothing is sacred. He lambastes everyone and everything in the book. You can see just how much he really hated living in this place — the politics, the people, and the class distinctions. Everything in this book is negative and full of vitriol which makes it a hard, and sometimes unpleasant, book to read. It’s a treatise on society and the time period. The wastefulness of the lifestyles of these well-to-do people, the sad lives they lead, the wanton spending of money on parties. Julian English himself is a Cadillac salesman. Could he have given him a more despised job? O’Hara doesn’t want you to like anyone here and goes out of his way to make that happen. You might start to feel sorry for some of the characters and then he switches gears and has you eavesdropping on their lives through the neighbors who are talking badly about them and what they’re really like behind closed doors.
I wasn’t sure how to feel about this book. Yes, it’s a great read. It’s caustic, there are small town politics, there are interesting characters, but none of it is likable. He eviscerates everyone and everything for what I imagine would be an attempt at making himself feel better, and slightly superior, to the people he’s writing about. Some of it felt childish to me and I had to remind myself to take a step back. While I might no longer live in that area, I still take offense when people degrade it and that was beginning to happen to me with this book. Once I took myself out of it, I found it an easier read.
This book, which takes place over the course of three days and ends in a tragedy, feels like a lifetime. It was hard to read, at least for me, but well worth it.