The Resolution Project Book Six: Appointment in Samarra (1934)

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books / the resolution project

“What was there about Reilly that caused him to say to himself: ‘If he starts on more of those moth-eaten stories I’ll throw this drink in his face.'” – Julian English

So, as expected, my scheme to read all of the books in alphabetical order has become a dismal failure, owing to the vagaries of the Edmonton Public Library’s holds system, which seems to favour people who were there first, for whatever reason. Still, I plan to keep the convention of naming these entries according to their placement on the Time Magazine list, as it will make searching for books I’ve read previously a lot easier to do this way. Oh, and for the record, the fifth book on the list, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, is a skip book for me, as I read it in high school. I wouldn’t mind going back to it though, perhaps after my task is through.

Cover for Appointment in Samara, by John O'Hara

Appointment in Samarra, by John O’Hara

In the fictional city of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, Julian English is a moderately successful Cadillac dealer, a status owing more to his distinguished parentage more than any sort of merit he himself possesses. English and his wife Caroline are one of the main power couples in their circle of the hardscrabble (for poor people) coal-mining town, part of an elite group of country club-frequenting upper class folk for whom reputation is absolutely everything. With the aforementioned thought briefly passing through the head of Julian English, though, the fate of the young man is set in stone with everything coming to a head in three days over a post-Christmas weekend. After he throws his drink at nouveau-riche douchebag Harry Reilly, the clock starts ticking for English’s own meeting with death (the title refers to a folk tale about a man who freaks out after meeting the embodiment of Death in a marketplace, then runs to Samarra, not knowing that Death was actually planning to meet him there as well).

For me, the real draw of this novel, other than its short length, was how it describes the lives and petty squabbles of upper-class country club types in 1930s America. Unlike Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, whose eponymous hero also frequented such places when he was in the company of a well-heeled dame (but never really set the stage for you much), O’Hara definitely brings you into the club lifestyle, which on the one hand sounds absolutely decadent to me, while at the same time incredibly boring. Drinking bootlegged scotch and rye (or in some cases straight-up bathtub gin, heh) all day while passing time with your cronies at the club sounds fairly entertaining to me, especially when you describe some of the alternatives to this lifestyle with passages like this one, from the mind of low-level mafioso Al Grecco:

“But that was not possible here, at the Stage Coach. It was a woman’s place. All dance places. night clubs, road houses, stores, churches, and even whorehouses – all were women’s places. And probably the worst kind of woman’s place was a place like this, where men put on monkey suits and cut their necks with stiff collars and got drunk without the simple fun of getting drunk but with the presence of women to louse things up.” (p. 144)

The descriptions of the minutiae of dancing, though, sounded both boring and exasperating to me (not to read about, but if you actually had to do this sort of thing on a regular basis, of course). It’s interesting on a sociological level to see how stag lines worked, and how many dances you should have with married women and unmarried ones, but it just seemed like a lot of work when everyone hates each other anyway. While I’ve never really enjoyed frequenting nightclubs on a regular basis in our time, there’s something to be said for drunkenly groping people on the dance floor rather than being all civilized about it. It is interesting to see the 1930s societal attitude towards dating though, which hinges on having many dates with different people in order to increase your prospects, which our STI-fearing culture has made a relic of the past and Archie Comics.

If I had to describe the relationship between the main couple of the book, in addition to their attitudes toward the scene occurring around them, the closest I can come up with would be Revolutionary Road, the movie of which definitely made me think twice about ever getting married. I haven’t read the book, it’s on the list though, so I anticipate I’ll encounter it around October or so.

Here’s what Lacayo says about this book: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1951793_1951936_1952091,00.html

“‘Don’t go,’ he said. He wanted to call her all kinds of bitches.'” Julian English, upon his being rebuffed by a gossip columnist. Possibly one of the greatest lines ever written.

Total Pages read: 1345 pp

Next up on the Resolution Project: Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997), for real this time.

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

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