Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Appointment in Samarra

A childhood friend of mine was the lucky owner of a dollhouse, which she regarded as some cumbersome, musty antique and not an endless source of fascination and a lush garden for the imagination, as I did. She said it was an heirloom thrust upon her by her doll-crazy mother. It took up too much space in her bedroom. She would give it to me if she could. If only! But there was no way I could pull off such a brilliant dollhouse heist, even with my friend’s help. Her mother would notice it was missing, and I would be identified as the prime suspect.

I remember staring, mesmerized at the furniture that looked so realistic, it seemed impossible that people and not elves had built it. My childhood friend must have wondered if the only reason I came over was so I could peer into all the rooms and spy on the dolls, which had stayed put since the last time I visited and rearranged them in different rooms of the house.

If built to scale, that dollhouse would have been the Palace of Versailles. The dolls were too numerous to all belong to the same family, I figured, so the setup was more like the old MTV show, The Real World: This is the true story . . . of fifty dolls . . . picked to live in a house . . . work together and have their lives spied on by a little girl . . . to find out what happens . . . when dolls stop being polite . . . and start getting real . . . The Real World.

John O’Hara’s debut novel, Appointment in Samarra, reminded me of my old dollhouse obsession. Just like the antique dolls, the characters are from another time. This novel came out in 1934, during the slow recovery period of the Great Depression. The characters are a reflection of their precarious time, uncertain how much power and influence they have, the stability of their social rank, and what they have to lose if disaster strikes. The novel opens with a bedroom scene in the hoity-toity fictional town of Gibbsville. A man is lying in bed next to his sleeping wife, unsure if he should wake her to make love to her. Following the wife’s hospitable reaction and in her post love-making condition, the wife’s thoughts are revealed, and through her thoughts, the main characters, Julian and Caroline English, are introduced.

Julian English is a man at the top of his game. He’s married to Caroline, a woman he can’t imagine losing. He hobnobs in an elite social class where college-educated, successful men drink and dance with beautiful, sometimes scantily-clad, ladies. In the beginning of the book, there’s a clear understanding of societal rules Julian must follow. He and other men must entertain desirable and less desirable women at parties by taking turns dancing with all of them to avoid hurt feelings. (The less desirable women were called sad birds, just to give a small sampling of the fun 1930s slang from this book.)

In the chapter about Julian’s childhood, O’Hara gives readers a glimpse into the organized world of kids growing up in Gibbsville, where it seemed everything has a cause and effect. If neighbors refused candy on Halloween, there were consequences. Kids worked together to create a mini-society with a clear hierarchy and a way of playing together so that everyone knew their place. They knew there weren’t enough rich kids in the neighborhood to fill teams for baseball, so they had to recruit the boys of a lower status to play games and reach the necessary number of players. The fact that baseball was a part of Julian's life at all indicates that he once knew how to play by the rules.

As the book progresses and Julian reaches the age of thirty, his ego snuffs out all rules, societal and baseball alike. He acts like a king, believing himself to be heavenly anointed and incapable of falling. He makes the inexcusable error one night of getting drunk and throwing a drink in the face of Harry O’Reilly, an old chum and investor in his Cadillac dealership. The ice in the drink gives Harry a black eye, but the more serious injury befalls Julian. His reckless behavior causes his life to spin out of control. The prizes he once held in the palm of his hand: a beautiful, loving wife, a successful career, friends, a good reputation, now seem to be slipping through his fingers.

The title of the book comes from a W. Somerset Maugham retelling of an old Iraqi story, about a man who cannot run from his fate.

I loved peering into the lives of different characters. O’Hara takes the time to develop all of them and show how everyone is connected in a fascinating small town web. The swaggering protagonist is one of the most enchanting, yet unlikeable characters I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction. In what little I know about John O’Hara’s life (that he wrote his own tombstone engraving before he died and wasn’t regarded as being the nicest fellow), I’d speculate that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree as far as character invention went. Ernest Hemingway was a fan of this book, which makes perfect sense. I can just imagine Papa Hemingway poring over this book and feeling envious with every word of O’Hara’s undeniable talent.

This is a book with subject matter so relevant to situations all over the world. I know it will stay with me for a long time. Julian English reminded me of my maternal grandfather, a conceited man who thought he could do no wrong and even wrote his own glowing obituary before he died. Julian English reminded me of a lot of people who think they can carry on not caring about anybody but themselves and acting as if there are no consequences in life.

I couldn’t help but contrast Julian English with someone I spent some time with this summer. When hanging out with a very nice guy, who happens to be named Guy, I asked, “How do you think your life would be different if you weren’t such a nice guy?” He answered, “I think I would have more money and I would be more successful.” I appreciated that answer. He acknowledged that he had less of what he could have had, yet he wanted to continue being a nice guy. After reading about Julian English, I definitely think Guy made the right decision.  

Telling John O'Hara stories can make you the life of the party! It also helps if you're a natural storyteller, like Judy Blume. And if your listeners are drinking martinis. 

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