Years ago, someone challenged a book group I was part of to see who had read the most novels on Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list. I can’t remember if I had the top number, but I had read about half of them and was determined then to read every novel on that list. I love literary lists.
Ulysses, rightfully so, is at the top of the list. And there’s Great Gatsby. A fine novel…a little over rated and over-read…but not as much as #55’s On the Road. At #22 on this list—nestled in there between Saul Bellow and John Dos Passos—sits Appointment in Samarra, a novel I skipped over to read later for some reason. Why didn’t I consider this novel at the time? Was it the clinical sounding “Appointment” in the title? Did I assume it was a Middle East war story? Something Biblical?
I never made it through the entire list and didn’t take notice of the title again until a couple months ago, when I saw our stunning new cover for the novel. Jazz & fast cars & dancing & highballs…obviously not a Biblical story and certainly not clinical.
So I Wiki’d the book & the author John O’Hara and discovered he penned Butterfield 8, the source of one of my favorite Liz Taylor movies. “Mama, face it: I was the slut of all time.”
I knew I needed to reconsider this book.
I was sold after I read W. Somerset Maugham’s epigraph:
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 marketplace 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 marketplace 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.
The novel did not disappoint.
Written about ten years after Gatsby and set in 1930, this was called the hangover generation and the novel’s plot follows the unraveling of the central male protagonist during Christmastime after he drunkenly throws a highball in the face of a “friend” at a party. One bad decision leads to another for our anti-hero and at the end of three days of excessive drinking and cloudy, hung-over damage control, things do not end well. The moral of the story? Imbibe a few less drinks; don’t throw your drink in the face of the guy who loaned you $20k; don’t sleep with the mob boss’s mistress; and don’t beat up a one-armed war veteran.
John O’Hara presents us with a colorful world filled with small town country clubs, where African-Americans and Jews are outsiders and Protestants and Catholics are in constant conflict. A world where the drinks are always flowing, along with the dipsomaniacal insults, and misfortune might have been averted had there been one less holiday highball.
- Clinton Wilson, Marketing Manager