Set during the Christmas holidays of 1930 in and around the fictitious town of Gibbsville--probably O’Hara’s hometown of Pottsville-- Pennsylvania (also the locus of many subsequent O’Hara fictions), the novel portrays the rapid decline and fall of thirty-year-old Julian English, a Cadillac dealer hitherto regarded as one of the rising bright lights in Gibbsville society. In less than a week’s time, Julian English discovers that his world has shrunk to such a degree that he can no longer live in it; as befits his occupation, he will leave the world from the driver’s seat of his demonstrator Cadillac, sipping whiskey as the motor runs inside the closed garage.
Ostensibly, Julian’s swift decline begins when, more than a little drunk and unable to restrain himself, he throws a drink in the face of Harry Reilly at a country-club party. Reilly is of Irish descent, and ethnic tensions are never far from the surface; still, the two men appear relatively free of prejudice with regard to each other, suggesting that the real reasons for Julian’s downfall lie somewhat deeper.
With analytical skills that range freely between the social and the psychological, O’Hara flashes back and forth through Julian’s brief life, concluding with the portrait of a man who has never seemed to “know his place,” whatever that may be. To be sure, Julian’s own grandfather died a suicide, yet even that fact seems of minor importance as Julian rushes headlong into the creation of his own personal tragedy. Almost willfully, he proceeds from the Reilly incident into a fight with his wife Caroline, then to a brief tryst with a gangster’s moll, and eventually to an improbable fistfight with a one-armed war hero who used to be one of his friends. At last, out of options and out of space, he retreats to the Cadillac and a death which is little understood by his survivors, least of all by Harry Reilly.
Deemed controversial in its time for its frank portrayal of sex (especially among married folk), the novel remains notable for its delineation of character and has since acquired validity as a period piece, recalling the last days of the Jazz Age and the beginnings of the Great Depression.
Bier, Jesse. “O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra: His First and Only Real Novel.” College English 25, no. 2 (November, 1963): 135-141. Compares O’Hara’s first novel favorably with Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), but questions the importance of the rest of O’Hara’s work.
Bruccoli, Matthew J. The O’Hara Concern: A Biography of John O’Hara. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995. A slightly expanded edition of the most complete biography of O’Hara, first published in 1975 and written with the cooperation of O’Hara’s widow. Discusses the sources and background of Appointment in Samarra and argues that O’Hara is a major writer. Good bibliography.
Donaldson, Scott. “Appointment with the Dentist: O’Hara’s Naturalistic Novel.” Modern Fiction Studies 14, no. 4 (Winter, 1968-1969): 435-442. Argues that O’Hara was writing a naturalistic, as opposed to a didactic, novel and that this accounts for the novel’s lukewarm acceptance.
Eppard, Philip B. Critical Essays on John O’Hara. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Includes reprints of the essays by Bier and Donaldson described here and provides further material on Appointment in Samarra.
Grebstein, Sheldon N. John O’Hara. New York: Twayne, 1966. The earliest and one of the most balanced book-length assessments of O’Hara’s controversial career. Identifies the forces at work in Appointment in Samarra as fate, society, free will, self-knowledge, sex, and money.
Long, Robert Emmet. John O’Hara. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. A useful short study. Concludes that O’Hara is not a major writer, but calls Appointment in Samarra his “most nearly perfect novel.”