John O’Hara is supreme in the art and craft of the short story. Perhaps because of his newspaper background, he is able to condense a tale to its fundamentals and produce tightly crafted and powerful short fiction. With his ear for speech and eye for effect, he is in two or three sentences able to bring to life a character from nearly any walk of life. This gift also marks his novels, in particular perhaps his first novel, Appointment in Samarra.
One of O’Hara’s shortest and best-structured novels, Appointment in Samarra is the story of hubris in a modern setting. It takes place in 1930, after the crash of 1929 but before people understood just how bad the Depression would become. The hero of the novel, Julian English, has social status but destroys himself by not living up to it. Julian has two problems: people and alcohol, and both are revealed to be part of the inner problems that ultimately ruin him. There is much discussion in the book of who “belongs” and who does not, which clubs count in Gibbsville, what preparatory schools and colleges matter, and where one should be seen or not be seen. The laborer, mobster, and society man all think constantly about their position on the social ladder. Julian thinks about it too much.
The novel presents an accurate picture of a broad cross section of Gibbsville society. Observing different kinds of people, from the secretary in the automobile agency and the ex-convict working for the gangland boss to the society matron, O’Hara achieves a new kind of fictional reporting, in the best sense of the term. The humor and fast pace of the novel and the clean, sure style give it a surface slickness that is almost misleading, for it is not a superficial novel. There is depth behind the meretricious glitter and hard-boiled sensual flavor. The book’s racy language and sexual candor continue the pathbreaking trend begun only a short time earlier by Ernest Hemingway. The characters are concerned with superficialities, but that does not make them superficial. O’Hara is able to capture, especially in his dialogue, the nuances of tone that reveal the hidden depths.
Julian English, the central figure of the novel, is the most complex and interesting of the characters. He seems to burn with a compulsion toward...
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