Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara – When Rule Breaking Is Worse Than Law Breaking

There was a merchant in Baghdad 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 Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

(Somerset Maugham’s retelling of an ancient Mesopotamian folk tale, reproduced at the beginning of Appointment in Samarra.)

Appointment in Samarra is a 1934 novel by American writer John O’Hara. It tells the story of Julian English, the owner of a car dealership in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. At a Christmas party he impulsively throws a drink in the face of an influential and garrulous local businessman. From there, over the few days of the Christmas holidays, Julian’s life falls apart. He makes attempts to reverse the awful momentum of events, but disaster seems inescapable.

Julian’s life in Gibbsville is inevitable in its course. By the time a young man reaches his junior year in college, his station in the town’s social life is fixed. And yet a suffocatingly orderly community is also riven by organised crime and corruption. Actually the words ‘organised crime’ sum up a place that combines stultifying regularity with criminal irregularity.

Julian commits a ‘crime’ in this town where crime is an accepted part of local administration. Throwing a drink at a pompous man who loves the sound of his own voice is one of those acts which, while not illegal, catches the general imagination as a ‘bad thing’. It is perhaps all the worse for occupying an unsettling and un-legislated grey area. Many ‘scandals’ occupy this twilight zone, somewhere between proper behaviour and outright law breaking.

Julian’s life starts to rapidly unravel. He is resentful that a relatively minor infraction threatens to ruin him, when Gibbsville sees much worse as part of its normal routine. In his frustration, he does a few more impulsive, stupid things which, in the terms of Maugham‘s opening epigraph, push him further and further along the road from Baghdad to Samarra. Julian’s story combines a sense of gathering chaos with remorseless inevitability, a kind of organised crime in itself.

This compelling story is told in a generally straightforward style, with an emphasis on realistic dialogue. There is some chopping and changing of point of view – head hopping as it’s called these days. That didn’t used to be such an issue as it is now, but for me it did stop the story being quite as compelling as it might have been. I leave you to judge whether that is a crime or a minor breaking of a writing rule, when writing rules are always murky.

The story felt contemporary, both in its frank writing style and its preoccupations. Our social media dominated society is riven by doubts and inconsistencies regarding standards of behaviour. Appointment in Samarra is interesting as an early exploration of this difficult landscape.

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