Appointment in Samarra

There are some "classics" you read because your English teacher told you it had literary value once - and then there are classics you read because they truly transport you deeply into another time and place, another world, to see what life was once like. Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara falls squarely into the second category. Set in Pennsylvania in December 1930, you are immersed in the town of Gibbsville. The locals have dealt with prohibition for a decade and which has found a variety of ways to drink heavily all the same. You see this world from the viewpoint of rich and poor, male and female, religious and non-religious. Drinking is a core theme throughout the story, as is the inevitable path of one man's meeting with death.

This review will contain spoilers, but this is not anything 'new' with this story - the back jacket of the book gives away the entire plot, and so does the introduction to the story. It is like going to see Hamlet and knowing it's a tragedy. It's fine to know the general storyline. What is special about this book is the characters - watching how they interact, learning about their personalities, seeing what this period of history was all about. The beauty is not in "who did what". It is in the myriad of small interactions and the hand-grenade series of repercussions.

At the center of the maelstrom is Julian English, a married man, a car dealer, who is happy being the core of his well-to-do circle of friends. It's Christmas and, as usual, the group is drinking heavily - either rye, applejack, gin, or for a select few, scotch. One of the group, an Irishman named Reilly, is telling stories, and Julian gets more and more annoyed by it. In a burst of energy, Julian tosses his drink in Reilly's face to get him to shut up. And thus the snowball begins.

While Julian figures this is no big deal, Julian's wife is convinced this is the beginning of the end and nags Julian into going to apologize. Reilly is in a huff - he has a black eye now from where an ice cube hit him - and refuses to come down to talk to Julian, thus cementing in Julian's mind that this IS a big deal. So Julian becomes desolate. Off the group goes to another club, where of course there is even more drinking. The drink of the day is rye, although they are hoping for scotch. Either the rye is drunk straight or with ginger ale. That's their world - no wine, no beer, not even vodkas or rums. The drunken group gets even more soused.

When Julian reaches his depths of despair, he drowns his sorrows in a vase-sized highball made from his personal stash of Scotch, after feeding his rye to a visitor.

It is fairly impressive that a story set deep in the grips of Prohibition is so fully saturated with alcohol. The story is told from a variety of viewpoints, from poor to rich, from straight laced to criminal, and being drunk is a common thread. Perhaps it is not a surprise that Prohibition would be repealed a mere three years later, counted as a failure of a policy.

The title of the book, Appointment in Samarra, is in reference to a short story that prefaces the novel. A servant meets up with death and tries to escape, fleeing off to Samarra where he hopes he will not be found. However, it turns out that Death had been planning to do the deed *in* Samarra - so the servant fled right into the path of his own destiny. You could say similarly that Julian had a destiny to meet death, and while he tries to apologize, and to drive off, in the end he makes that appointment. I have to say, though, that in Julian's case, it seems more to me like he is saying "The hell with it, I'm going to march down this path and nobody can stop me." He knows he's being self destructive. He's doing things he knows are damaging. He empties out that vase and mixes the world's largest highball, and drinks it all down. He just doesn't care at all. So it's a different feeling to me than the servant desperately fleeing.

Part of the curiosity about this novel is that it was John O'Hara's very first novel. Readers were blown away that a brand new author could create such compelling characters who felt alive and unique. Nothing O'Hara wrote afterward came up to this same level.

Well recommended.

I purchased this book with my own funds from Amazon.

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All content on the WineIntro website is personally written by author and wine enthusiast Lisa Shea. WineIntro explores the delicious variety and beautiful history which makes up our world of wine! Lisa loves supporting local wineries and encouraging people to drink whatever they like. We all have different taste buds, and that makes our world wonderful. Always drink responsibly.