Samarra, located 62 miles northwest of Baghdad in the “Sunni Triangle,” has lacked stability for several years.
In February 2006 two men blew up the golden dome of the al-Askari shrine, a Shia holy site of the tombs of Imam Ali al-Naqi and his son Imam Hasan al-Askari.
On November 30, 2003 U.S. forces engaged in a firefight with guerillas in Samarra, and, “…claimed to have killed 54 attackers and captured eight others.” In the following days the accuracy of the death toll and the scope and nature of the conflict were widely disputed—one journalistic reexamination was entitled “Appointment in Samarra.”
This headline, like the title of John O’Hara’s 1934 novel, was appropriated from W. Somerset Maugham’s 1933 play, Sheppey, in which the playwright retold an ancient fable about Death meeting a young servant, who futilely tries to escape his fate by fleeing Baghdad for Samarra. Maugham’s source was likely a translation of a ninth century Arabian Sufi story in Fudail ibn Ayad’s Hikayat-I-Naqshia; an earlier version appeared in the Babylonian Talmud.
O’Hara excerpted Maugham’s entire vignette as an epigraph because he thought it "fitted nicely into the inevitability of [the protagonist] Julian English's death," according to Bill Duryea of The St. Petersburg Times. Just four days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, Duryea’s contemplation of the war, the Sufi tale and O’Hara’s novel still resonates:
“Reading that fable today, it's hard not to think of the fate that awaits American soldiers as they push through the Iraqi desert bound for Baghdad. So much is at stake -- the lives of soldiers and innocents, the future of a troubled region and the security of our own nation. We are riding to Samarra, among other places. It is not literature. It is not metaphor… A chain of events has begun and while it plays out we wonder what it is that we have set in motion. Is there an ineluctable fate that awaits us?”Duryea further summarized O’Hara’s portrayal of “religious and ethnic bigotry” between Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Irish, Italians and other groups. More than three and a half years after his article, descendants of those American combatants are conducting, among other activities, dinner meetings to mediate between Sunnis and Shiites.
In alluding to “Julian’s downward spiral,” Duryea unwittingly evoked a Samarran landmark, the spiral minaret of the Great Mosque. Metaphor, reality, observation and allusion continue to collide in Iraq.
O’Hara, like Maugham, was interested in the universality of the old tale, not the social or historical reality of Samarra, founded in 836 by the Abassid Caliph al-Mu'tasem Billah. He targeted primarily his hometown of Pottsville, PA, founded in 1806 by John Pott. “Gibbsville” stands in for Pottsville as the setting for Appointment in Samarra, several other novels and more than 50 short stories.
Considered a consummate “natural storyteller” and a practitioner of social realism, O’Hara sought to faithfully depict his neighbors, warts and all. He is Pottsville’s famous literary son and the subject of ongoing tours and events. Yuengling Brewery (Yuengling is German meaning 'Young Man' and is pronounced Ying-Ling), founded in 1829 and the oldest American brewery, produces bottles that are Pottsville’s portable, potable standard-bearers. At one time the O’Hara family lived in a home owned by the Yuengling family.
With typical incisiveness, the narrator of Appointment in Samarra notes:
“In a town the size of Gibbsville—24,032, estimated 1930 census—the children of the rich live within two or three squares of the children of the parents who are not rich, not even by Gibbsville standards. This makes for a spurious democracy…”This description mirrored the facts of Pottsville, which now has a population of about 15,000 and is no longer a coal-region boomtown. Another writer, in a review of a biography of O’Hara, expanded:
“Pottsville still teemed during O’Hara’s youth. With an ethnic diversity including Pennsylvania-Dutch farmers, Irish and Welsh coal miners, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Swedes, and the predominantly Anglo-Saxon, Protestant aristocracy of bankers and managers thriving on the anthracite industry, the town was a treasury of class distinctions and yet small enough, at around twenty-five thousand, so that everybody rubbed elbows. A doctor and his eldest son sampled this society at every stratum, and the odd democracy of Prohibition mingled gangsters and molls with the country-club set, of which the O’Haras, though Irish, were dancing, horse-riding members.”The reviewer was the novelist John Updike, a fellow Pennsylvanian from Shillington, a 38-mile drive from Pottsville. A literary social realist himself, Updike used “Brewer” and “Olinger” as stand-ins for Reading and Shillington in many books. Updike has been a staff member at and frequent contributor to The New Yorker; he noted that O’Hara holds the record for published pieces there.
The only tedious sections—they’re scarce and brief—of Appointment in Samarra occur in O’Hara’s cataloguing of the logistics and financing of Julian English’s employer, a Cadillac dealership. A paragraph including “Number of cars sold in 1930; our cut on new cars sold; gas and oil profit 1930…” immerses the reader in English’s world and mindset, but the impatient reader quickly gets the drift and jumps to the punch line relating the hero’s distress: “I have to have five thousand dollars.”
The centathlete recalls passages more elaborate, more technical, even more skippable on the same topic in Updike’s Rabbit is Rich, as Rabbit Angstrom profits from and wrestles with his Toyota dealership. (He also recalls an interminable chapter on the operations of a Newark, NJ glove manufacturer in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.) Such faithful renderings reflect a certain understandable authorial insistence on and attention to detail, but they unfailingly move the centathlete to turn the page hastily—hey, he hasn’t owned a car in 18 years.
O’Hara’s literary realism was forged when he worked as a reporter for the Pottsville Journal from 1924-1926 and subsequently as a rewrite man, radio columnist and movie critic for New York City periodicals. As you might expect from an ace journalist, he does dialogue superbly. He “plays the angles” (originally a squash term referring to a tricky shot that is difficult to return) in exchanges that expertly convey, among other sentiments, sarcasm, despair, intimacy and jealousy. For example, consider when Caroline, having decided to divorce Julian, seeks out her mother for advice and consolation:
“‘I’m sorry, I just came here because I had to speak to somebody and I didn’t want to talk to somebody that’d blab it all over.’What an ear! The unbridged generation gap on display at a time of crisis, the conflict between propriety and health, the self-conscious infantilization—drama on the page can’t get much better.
‘Are you serious?’
‘Yes, I’m serious.’
‘But are you? Are you serious, Caroline? That’s a very serious thing, when people start talking about a divorce. We’ve never had a divorce in our family, and I don’t think there was ever one in Julian’s family either. What is it?’
‘I’m just fed up. I’m sick and tired and miserable. I’m just so miserable and unhappy. I’m so unhappy, Mother, I don’t care if I die.’
‘Die, dear? Are you pregnant? Are you, dear?
You could be wrong, you know. It might just be the strain, Christmas.’ She got up and sat beside Caroline. ‘Come here, dear. Tell me about it. Mother wants to hear all about it.’
‘Caroline wants to cry,’ said Caroline, and laughed.”
An artistic forebear to Updike, O’Hara was also an immediate successor to F. Scott Fitzgerald— in fact, O’Hara has been called a “seamy Fitzgerald,” a characterization that can be seen in both a positive and negative light according to taste—as evidenced in Appointment in Samarra, which works within the context of Prohibition (1920-1933), jazz, adultery, organized crime, social climbing and class conflict. All those elements also coalesce in The Great Gatsby, published in 1925.
Imagine The Great Gatsby written in the omniscient third person—what would be different? In narrating from Nick Carraway’s limited perspective, Fitzgerald clouded the facts of Jay Gatsby’s background and downfall, creating a myth of the tragic Self-Made Man trying to get The Girl.
O’Hara, the former reporter, did not aspire to make myths. According to the Penn State Library, he “...emphasized complete objectivity in his books, writing frankly about the materialistic aspirations and sexual exploits of his characters.” In only one short section of Appointment in Samarra he employs the first person, giving voice to Caroline. The switch enhances the overall verisimilitude and visceral momentum of the unfolding action rather than complicates the plot through ambiguity and uncertainty.
How can we view the contrast in narrative technique between the “best” books of two Irish-American writers who were both famously obsessed with status and wealth in their fiction and their actual lives?
On the grand scale, the Great Depression began in 1929-1930, halfway between the publications and, also, divergent Americas. The cautionary strain in The Great Gatsby (ex. Carraway’s damning appraisal of the Buchanans as people who break things) is poignant and powerful beyond the damage done to certain characters because the American ship in 1925 continues to sail on an exuberantly high tide. Dreams, innuendoes, lies, and misunderstandings, the true subjects of that novel, themselves project an aura and smog so suitable for a mythologizer instead of a reporter.
After the Depression began in 1929-1930, the weather dried up and most boats were grounded. Even O’Hara’s prosperous characters, such as Julian English, demonstrate anxiety from the economic drought. English will die, we know from the beginning, and life for others will carry on, but only in a compromised, tenuous condition.
On the personal scale, it’s helpful to consider Princeton. Fitzgerald attended Princeton University (though he didn’t graduate) and belonged to Cottage Club, one of the social-eating institutions he wrote about in This Side of Paradise. O’Hara died and is buried in Princeton.
O’Hara was unable to attend Yale University as he planned, or any other college, due to his father’s premature death; he carried a chip on his shoulder the rest of his life. Brendan Gill observed, "People used to make fun of [it], but it was never a joke to O'Hara. It seemed... that there wasn't anything he didn't know about in regard to college and prep-school matters."
After Princeton, Fitzgerald for some time hobnobbed with high society in New York and Europe. O’Hara was more of a professional writer and less of a socialite. He set his fiction in less rarefied environs; Gibbsville is patently less cosmopolitan than Fitzgerald’s West and East Egg and New York City—and more representative of the country’s general climate and downsized dreamscape.
O’Hara’s work was far more popular in its time than was Fitzgerald’s, and it sold well throughout his life, a fact he was by no means ashamed of. He told his audience in 1967, "...you must not expect modesty from me. I am just as aware as anyone else that my books have sold something like 15 million copies, and I could not have attained that circulation if I had not been readable."
Through Appointment in Samarra and his other novels and short stories, O’Hara practiced “non-judgmental, unhysterical” (the adjectives of a Village Voice reviewer) literary accounting that is notable for its repression of authorial bias and ego. As the comments from 1967 suggest, such repression did not translate into real life.
The centathlete can’t help observing that O’Hara possessed a trait common, perhaps endemic, to other first-rate realistic-journalistic novelists such as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe: first-rate hubris. O’Hara affirmed forever his robust self-appraisal by writing the epitaph for his own gravestone:
“Better than anyone else he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.”
We read this well after his last appointment in Princeton, recently after many others’ last appointments in Iraq, and before our own.