Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

The first book I read for the 2015 challenge, filling the category of “20th Century Classic” (and also ticking yet another book off the Modern Language 20th century best of list!) was Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara.  I can see why the writing in the book is admired, O’Hara is able to convey a lot with few words, but I just didn’t care about any of the characters or what happened to them. In some ways, this book, with its exposure of small town conformity and hypocrisy, was similar to Sinclair Lewis’ novel Main Street, which I liked a lot more. Maybe this was because Carol in Main Street is a much more sympathetic character than Julian English, the protagonist (or maybe antihero) of Appointment in Samarra.  The book is also quite frank about sex, especially given that it was published in the 30’s.

The story is told in an indirect way, with detours in the backgrounds of peripheral characters interspersed within the main plot. Julian seemingly has everything going for him. He is in his late twenties, from the right family, moderately wealthy, well married, well liked etc. But one evening, he publicly insults another member at the country club and this sets off his downward spiral from respectability to persona non-grata in the town. What makes Julian do it? The book really doesn’t answer that question overtly. Is it snobbery? Is it jealousy? Does he have a death wish?  Does he feel trapped in his conventional, middle class life? Is it the fact that his business and his marriage aren’t quite as ideal as they seem? Is there a history of mental illness in his family, bad blood? Or is it his alcoholism?

Or maybe it is none of the above, since the title of the book indicates that one cannot outrun one’s fate. Throughout the book, Julian has chances to redeem himself, but he consistently chooses paths that only further ensnare him so that ultimately he feels he has only one way out.

So my first pick wasn't a favorite...but the only way is UP! I am sure that my subsequent reads will be more to my taste and enjoyment.