The Butterfly Effect; ‘Appointment in Samarra’ by John O’Hara [1934]

I came at Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara from an odd angle, wanting to decipher the meaning of the song of the same name by Paul Thomas Saunders. Music is not my normal route to literature, if anything it would work the other way round; I am far from a music buff. I am still unsure if I understand the song, it seems to be about the book, loosely, beautifully.

In December 1930, just before Christmas, the Gibbsville social circuit is electrified with parties and dances, where the music plays late into the night and the liquor flows freely. At the center of the social elite stand Julian and Caroline English—the envy of friends and strangers alike. But in one rash moment born inside a highball glass, Julian breaks with polite society and begins a rapid descent toward self-destruction. Appointment in Samarra brilliantly captures the personal politics and easy bitterness of small-town life. It is John O’Hara’s crowning achievement, and a lasting testament to the keen social intelligence of a major American novelist.
Synopsis from GoodReads

A wonderful representation of the hang-over era of the 30s, Appointment in Samarra is rich with social debate, damaged individuals, anti-Semitism, accepted layers of gang life, open and disguised sexuality and alcohol, rivers of alcohol. A story of an inevitable self-destruction, Appointment in Samarra, though tiresome in parts, painfully journeys through Julian English’s fall from grace.

“There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said “Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.” The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? “That was not a threatening gesture,” I said, “It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
-Somerset MaughamSource

Appointment in Samarra began enjoyably, however, the more I read of Julian English and his selfish, destructive meltdown the more aggravated I became. This can only be a testament to the talent of John O’Hara, who has created fascinatingly flawed characters you cannot entirely approve of. Having known nothing of Appointment in Samarra before I came to read it, I felt an unexplainable accompaniment of foreboding throughout the majority of my reading. Now having finished I understand this is because everything was unpreventable, something bad would always happen – if you run from death it will find you.

Julian English, our protagonist, is a member of the social elite; in a fantasy realised Julian begins a series of events which will topple him from his ‘safe’ social standing. It is never quite clear if he cares or not during his melodramatic breakdown, money and opinions seem to dictate the actions of the social elite; everything appeared to be simultaneously preventable and unpreventable. As a member of the hangover generation Julian can only be described as being ‘accustomed to the good life without having to earn it’; everything is so easy but a also so hard, he is too pathetic to know how to live independently.Wikepdia

Julian’s long suffering wife Caroline is a minor point of sympathy; if she could have stood the stigma of divorce she would have escaped sooner, but everything is about appearance and social standing. Even her mother brushes Julian’s drinking and adultery away in a sweep of a hand by accounting it to the weakness of man – I believe it can be assumed that Caroline’s father was not an easy man to be married too.

However, what shocked me most in Appointment in Samarra was the brazen anti-Semitism of the characters. These racist undertones in Julian’s Catholic controlled town made me more uncomfortable than my wait for death. I had no sympathy for Julian’s breakdown; he had no respect for anything, everything was easy, money was borrowed, alcohol was regular, he was lazy.

N.B. The title of the blog is as such because something as minor as a drink in the face leads to an unavoidable death; ‘[a] tiny change within a complex system [which] lead to results that [were] impossible to predict’.Source

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