Read Appointment in Samarra Online

Authors: John O'Hara

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

Appointment in Samarra


One of the great novels of small-town American life,
Appointment in Samarra
is John O’Hara’s crowning achievement. In December 1930, just before Christmas, the Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, social circuit is electrified with parties and dances. At the center of the social elite stand Julian and Caroline English. But in one rash moment born inside a highball glass, Julian breaks with polite society and begins a rapid descent toward self-destruction. Brimming with wealth and privilege, jealousy and infidelity, O’Hara’s iconic first novel is an unflinching look at the dark side of the American dream—and a lasting testament to the keen social intelligence of a major American writer.

Appointment in Samarra
lives frighteningly in the mind.”

—John Updike

“If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read
Appointment in Samarra

—Ernest Hemingway



(1905–1970) was one of the most prominent American writers of the twentieth century. Championed by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dorothy Parker, he wrote seventeen novels, including
Appointment in Samarra
, his first;
BUtterfield 8
, which was made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor; and
Ten North Frederick,
which won the National Book Award. He has had more stories published in
The New Yorker
than anyone in the history of the magazine. Born in Pottsfield, Pennsylvania, he lived for many years in New York and in Princeton, New Jersey, where he died.

is the former editor of
The New York Times Book Review
and former deputy editor of
The New Yorker.
He is currently a writer at large for
The New York Times


Appointment in Samarra

Introduction by



Published by the Penguin Group

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New York, New York 10014, USA

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First published in the United States of America by Harcourt, Brace and Company 1934

This edition with an introduction by Charles McGrath published in Penguin Books 2013

Copyright John O’Hara, 1934

Copyright renewed John O’Hara, 1961

Introduction copyright © Charles McGrath, 2013

All rights reserved. No part of this product may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

The quotation on page 3 is from
, a play by W. Somerset Maugham (Copyright 1933
by W. Somerset Maugham), published in 1933 by William Heinemann Ltd, London.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

O’Hara, John, 1905–1970

Appointment in Samarra / John O’hara; introduction by Charles Mcgrath.—
Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition.

  pages cm

“Originally published in 1934”—Introduction.

ISBN 978-1-101-60295-9

1. self-destructive behavior—Fiction.    2. Ethnic relations—Fiction.    3. Suicide victims—Fiction. 4. Married people—Fiction.    5. Young men—Fiction.    I. Title.

  PS3529.H29A8 2013




Introduction by



Originally published in 1934,
Appointment in Samarra
is still the only American novel I know that begins with a scene of a married couple—Luther and Irma Fliegler—having sex and on Christmas morning, no less. Later in the book, another married couple—Julian English, the novel’s protagonist, and his wife, Caroline—make love in the middle of Christmas afternoon. Julian has been dispatched on a disagreeable errand, and Caroline rewards him by waiting in their bedroom in a black lace negligee she calls her “whoring gown.” About their lovemaking, the novel says, “she was as passionate and as curious, as experimental and joyful as ever he was.”

That women are sexual creatures every bit as much as men is hardly news, but in 1934 it was news in fiction, and some readers found the sexual frankness of
offensive. (“Nothing but infantilism,” the critic Henry Seidel Canby wrote in the
Saturday Review
, calling the book “the erotic visions of a hobbledehoy behind the barn.”) Before O’Hara, sex in American novels—polite novels, anyway—was mostly adulterous, not something that proper married women engaged in, or if they did, they weren’t known to enjoy it. The sexual needs of women, apart from pleasing their husbands or their lovers, went on to become one of O’Hara’s great themes, and in later novels, like
A Rage to Live
Lovey Childs
, he rode it like a hobbyhorse. But in
there is a bracing tenderness and freshness in the way he describes the private lives of the Flieglers and the Englishes, and even decades later the novel’s explicitness may have emboldened O’Hara’s fellow Pennsylvanian John Updike in his own descriptions of
marital (and extramarital) sex.
is a genuine love story, charged with eros but stripped of sentimentality, and the relationship between the Englishes is more convincing and more satisfying than that of, say, Gatsby and Daisy in
The Great Gatsby
, or Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley in
A Farewell to Arms
. Though unfaithful to her, Julian can’t stop loving Caroline, and after O’Hara devotes a whole chapter to her intimate thoughts and sexual explorations before marriage, the reader can’t help falling a little in love with her, too. Caroline, for her part, reflects at the end of the book: “He was drunk, but he was Julian, drunk or not, and that was more than anyone else was.”

O’Hara first thought of calling the novel “The Infernal Grove,” a title almost as unpromising as “Trimalchio in West Egg,” Fitzgerald’s first choice for
The Great Gatsby
. In a letter to his brother Tom he wrote:

The plot of the novel, which is quite slight, is rather hard to tell, but it concerns a young man and his wife, members of the club set, and how the young man starts off the Christmas 1930 holidays by throwing a drink in the face of a man who has aided him financially. From then on I show how fear of retribution and the kind of life the young man has led and many other things contribute to his demise. There are quite a few other characters, some drawn from life, others imaginary, who figure in the novel, but the story is essentially the story of a young married couple in the first year of the depression. I have no illusion about its being the great or the second-great American novel, but it’s my first. And my second will be better.

As it turned out, his second novel,
BUtterfield 8
, was almost as good but not quite, and though O’Hara went on to write sixteen more novels, most of them big bestsellers, he could never top
. Along with
The Scarlet Letter
The Sun Also Rises
The Moviegoer
, and
, it is one of the handful of American novels that represent both the author’s first published effort and his best. O’Hara, who published hundreds of short stories and thirteen collections in his lifetime,
was actually a better story writer than he was a novelist, most evidently at the end of his career when the novels had grown bulky and laden with sociological exposition. The stories, by contrast, were almost minimalist, turning on just a line of dialogue or even a passing observation that suggests something crucial has just changed. More Hemingwayesque than Hemingway—more transparent and less mannered—these stories opened a path for such great American story writers as Salinger, Cheever, Updike, and Carver.

Appointment in Samarra
probably grew out of some Pennsylvania stories O’Hara had been working on. In 1932 he mentioned to a friend that he was thinking of a story about a figure much like Al Grecco, the bootlegger’s henchman in the novel: a Schuylkill County gangster who is a hanger-on at a roadhouse frequented by the country club set. And though
takes in much more than Al Grecco, who is only a minor character in the novel, it retains some of the terseness and quickness of a story. It’s a novel in a hurry.

The speed with which the book was written may account for the urgency of its storytelling. O’Hara began it in December 1933, when he was just twenty-eight, and wrote it in something like white heat, finishing in a little under four months. Set in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a lightly disguised version of Pottsville, where O’Hara grew up, the entire action of
Appointment in Samarra
—Julian English’s whirlwind of self-destruction—takes place in just thirty-six hours, and its breakneck pace is startling and exciting. Even on a second reading, when you know what’s going to happen, you tear through it still not quite believing in what’s just ahead and what’s already been established by the novel’s epigraph: an appointment in Samarra, we know from the beginning, is an appointment with death itself. Julian’s various offenses, none of them terrible in themselves—throwing a drink at the country club bore Harry Reilly; coming on to the girlfriend of the local bootlegger, Ed Charney; getting into a fistfight with his friend Froggy Ogden, a one-armed World War I vet—swiftly become a torrent that feels both dizzying and inevitable. There’s an impatient, impetuous side to Julian, who isn’t quite
thirty, we have to remind ourselves, and enjoys his own ruin even as it’s happening. After his brief tryst with the bootlegger’s girl, the book says: “Julian, lost in his coonskins, felt the tremendous excitement, the great thrilling lump in the chest and abdomen that comes before the administering of an unknown, well-deserved punishment. He knew he was in for it.”

What also makes
seem like a young man’s book is the way it tries to pack in almost everything O’Hara knew about the world, which was quite a lot for a twenty-eight-year-old. O’Hara had “a feral appetite to know things,” his biographer Geoffrey Wolff has said, and his book is well informed about sex, speakeasies and roadhouses, college fraternities and sororities, country clubs, coal mining, small-town journalism, big bands, the latest dance steps, Broadway shows, books, records, gangster slang, the right way to mix a highball, and cars—cars especially. They are practically characters in
, where it matters that Julian English owns the local Cadillac dealership. O’Hara notices cars, and what they reveal about their owners, as carefully as does Irma Fliegler, who, lying in bed on that Christmas morning, can identify the cars out on the snowy street just from the sound each one makes driving by. Cars in this novel, where almost a dozen different brands are named, everything from a Stutz Bearcat to a Baker electric, are status symbols and emblems of progress but also trysting places, nests of refuge, and invitations to danger and recklessness. (O’Hara’s own car of choice, when he could afford one, was a Rolls-Royce, and to ensure its safety he drove it to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and had it blessed by a monsignor.)

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