John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra is one of those second-tier American literary classics, the kind which self-appointed guardians of culture will insist is better than their more popular contemporaries in order to gain points in their own obscure circles. Indeed, my copy notes that Fran Leibowitz, self-styled epigrammist, referred to O'Hara as "the real F. Scott Fitzgerald." Meaningless palaver such as this can be unseemly and off-putting, but O'Hara's novel earns the praise more than most.
The novel is set in the fictional Gibbsville, PA, a town with a lot of old money wealth built on coal, and new money wealth built in the stock market. O'Hara sets his story in the world of the country club set, investing his story fully in their trifling distinctions and frivolous diversions. O'Hara is of this world and it shows. The chief pleasure of then novel may well be its anthropological dissection of these people and their lives. There are elaborate rituals evident in their country club parties and dances; taboos and mores as rigidly enforced as in any cultural tribe. It is also fascinating, at this chronological distance, to read O'Hara's frank depiction of the sexual politics of the time. O'Hara depicts a world in which neither men nor women are allowed to be open about they want, and shows their reliance on secrecy and deception.
The plot, then, becomes really just a vehicle to propel the audience through O'Hara's evisceration of this upper-class world. The main character is Julian English, a rather unserious young man of 30 who runs a car dealership and enjoys a position near the top of the social scene. On Christmas Eve 1930 he throws a drink in the face of a powerful man and shortly finds himself a pariah. His dizzying descent seems impossible, but is so well-drawn by O'Hara that it becomes frighteningly plausible.
There are sections of the novel devoted to other characters, but these are more anthropological in nature. The best of these involve Caroline English, Julian's wife. It's just interesting to try and think of the world at that time from a woman's perspective. A subplot about a lackey for the local mob leader falls a little flat but has it's moments.
This is not a complicated novel, but it is a well-written, clear-eyed look at a world and the way it is. Ernest Hemingway, who has a little more credibility on what deserves to be included in the first-tier of American literature, may have said it best: "If you want to read a novel by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra."