Jul 12, 2015

Our Appointment at Jack's

men's book club review Appointment in Samarra John O'Hara
As Dean observed, Jack treated us to the "two-fifty dinner" last Wednesday with his chopped iceberg salads and surf and turf entrees.  The ambience was further enhanced by the bottles of Speakeasy beer and small batch rye whiskey that made the rounds.  With a black tie optional dress code, it was as close to O'Hara's fictional Lantenengo Country Club as this group will ever see.  Special thanks to Jack's guest, also named Jack and also a Cantab, who good naturedly played along--sartorially and otherwise.

(Note to photo ed.: Photoshop trousers onto Jack R before publishing)
The Book
Published in 1934, Appointment in Samarra was John O'Hara's first novel and was an immediate literary and commercial success.  With both the Great Depression and Prohibition as its backdrop, O'Hara's novel exposes the social pretensions and economic friction of Gibbsville's arriviste country club set by charting the tragic downfall of its protagonist, Julian English. His demise is foretold in the book's title, which is taken from the book's epigraph by Somerset Maugham.  (Thanks to Doug for letting us in on the licensing fee O'Hara paid, and then passed on, in order to use this excerpt from Maugham's 1933 play, Sheppey.)

Despite my misgivings that O'Hara might read as a lesser Fitzgerald, none of us felt let down.  Instead, we enjoyed dissecting the social stratification at the heart of the novel and, as Tom put it, found a little of everything for the Man Book Club.  Several noted that the principal characters were irredeemable (Jack, Doug, Tom), and Paul--with his commentary about deception--found a suitably twisted/misogynistic cast of characters among the Lantenengo set. I was struck by the anti-Catholic bias that animated much of the story (and suffused so much of O'Hara's later writing). For Stan and Terry, it was the setting (Depression/Prohibition) that was especially vivid.  For Larry, it was Julian's impulsive act with the ice cube.  As the novel's set piece, this breach of decorum sets in motion the events that lead to Julian's suicide.  Finally, in a shameless display of male sensitivity, our guest noted that O'Hara's story features unusually strong, sexy female characters.  I'd accuse Jack of pandering, but who among us didn't love Caroline?!

There were some protests (our host openly admitted he liked Ten North Frederick better and George walked out when we told him the ending), but unlike one critic's headline reaction to O'Hara's next novel (Butterfield 8), our consensus 7.7 rating showed no "Disappointment in O'Hara." By the same token, none of us was willing to agree with Stan's conclusion that Appointment in Samarra is our best read to date. (But it was better than Hunger, Stan!)

Next Up
We read next Joseph Wambaugh's powerful true crime work, The Onion Field.  Paul couldn't persuade us to orient our moral compasses thru martial arts, nor could he nudge us back to Afghanistan with The Kite Runner.  So we will meet in September to discuss Powell and Smith's notorious 1963 police kidnapping.  Extra credit will be awarded to those who also watch the movie, starring James Woods and--in his film debut--a young Ted Danson.


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  2. Very enjoyable evening and thanks for coming everyone, especially to Paul who left me with an additional half bottle of rye. I'm glad to see such a short novel from 80 years ago generate substantial discussion. If you enjoyed this book, I'd be happy to lend out my copy of Ten North Frederick by O'Hara and is set in same town (a decade or so later) with references to some of the same characters. I promise I will wear pants at the next event! Have a great rest of summer everyone! -Jack

  3. After Stan reads your copy of Ten North Frederick, perhaps Doug can lend him the 1,000-page O'Hara Reader that he brought to the dinner. Maybe then Stan will get over his sudden infatutuation with O'Hara. Thanks again for a fine evening, Jack.

  4. A welcome read! It's amazing how many people from prior generations like it. I mentioned to my mom we'd read the book and she knew all about it, and O'Hara. Seems he was quite the thing back in the day. One wonders if we can draw any conclusions about some of the "older" books we read being breakthrough books of their time -- O'Hara, Capote, Miller, and…Hamsun?

    In any case, a good read, a fun party, and a chance to wear the penguin suit. Thanks, Jack!

    -- Paul