Julian English, a member of the social elite of the fictitious city of Gibbsville, PA, engages in three days of exceptionally self-destructive behavior, eventually committing suicide, as did his grandfather. In Appointment in Samarra, John O'Hara tells of the self-destructive behavior, and ultimate suicide, of his main character, Julian English. Appointment in Samarra, published in 1934, is John O'Hara's first novel, The title is taken from a story told by W. Somerset Maugham, which appears in the beginning of the book. A servant, living in Bagdad, sees Death in the market and tells his master that she made a threatening gesture to him. He borrows his master's horse so that he can ride to Samarra, thereby eluding Death. Later, when the master chastises Death for making a threatening gesture to his servant, Death says her gesture was not threatening, but one of a surprise. “I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.” It is generally agreed that the story describes the fate of the main character, Julian English.
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Julian English, the son of a physician, is a member of the social elite of Gibbsville, PA. He is quite well off; he owns a Cadillac dealership, lives on prestigious Lantenengo Street, and is a member of the Lantenengo Country Club. Things seem to be going his way.
On Christmas Eve, there's a dance at the Lantenengo Country Club. The dance is very crowded and the men retire to the smoking room. Harry Reilly is telling a series of stories. Julian wonders “Why…did he hate Harry Reilly? Why couldn't he stand him? What was there about Reilly that caused him to say to himself ‘If he starts one more of those moth-eaten stories I'll throw this drink in his face.' But he knew he would not throw this drink or any other drink in Harry's face. Still, it was fun to think about it.”
Actually he does throw the drink into Harry's face, giving Harry a black eye with one of the ice cubes.
Julian's wife, Caroline, is furious. Harry has lots of power in town. He gave Julian a $20,000 loan last summer and he always buys Cadillacs. Caroline is afraid that Julian has made an enemy for life. Unlike Julian and Caroline, who are Protestants, Harry is a Roman Catholic. Caroline is afraid that the Roman Catholics will see Julian's actions as an affront to all Roman Catholics, and they will all stop buying Cadillacs. Also, the story has gotten all over town. People look at Julian with disdain.
Julian and Caroline visit Julian's parents on Christmas Day. Luckily, they have not yet heard about the incident. They give Julian and Caroline a $250. check each as Christmas presents.
As they leave, Caroline says that Julian should stop at Harry's house to apologize in person. Harry lives with his sister and her children. When Julian arrives, Harry refuses to see him.
On Christmas night, Julian and Caroline join several of their friends at a dance at the Stage Coach, which is owned by Ed Charney, one of the major gangsters in the area. Ed is married with children, and always spends Christmas with his wife and family. However, he also has a mistress, Helene Holman, who he loves much more than his wife. Helene sings at the Stage Coach and has a room there, where she lives. Sadly, when she's alone, she has a tendency to get drunk; Ed wants someone to watch her. The fellow who usually watches her is away so he calls on one of his stalwarts, Al Grecco. Helene is very cranky and upset because Ed has left her alone.
Julian, in another self-destructive move, asks Helene to dance, thereby aggravating Caroline, Al Grecco, and the maître di, who watches over things when Ed is away. After several dances, Julian and Helene go out to his car. What they do there is never stated, but everyone assumes that they have had a sexual encounter. Caroline is furious because she has never been unfaithful to Julian. Also, Julian's life could be in danger when Ed finds out.
In the meantime, Julian is having money troubles again. “I have to have five thousand dollars, and I don't know where I can get it….Yes, I do. Nowhere.” Not only is he in debt, but he's unsure of how business will be when all his problematic activities come home to roost. Ed is also a good customer of Julian's dealership, and has sent lots of business Julian's way.
Julian stops at Harry Reilly's office to try to apologize to him again. However, Harry is on his way to New York City and has only four minutes to catch is train. Julian knows better than to delay him.
Instead, Julian goes to the Country Club. While there are not many members there, one table in the dining room is occupied by several lawyers. Julian sits at another table, where he is soon joined by Froggy Ogden, an old friend, who lost one arm in the war. Julian always feels a little guilty when he sees Froggy because Julian went to college instead of enlisting. Froggy, and others, sometimes chide him for not fighting.
Froggy is not in a happy mood. He starts carping at Julian who talks back. Soon, Froggy threatens to punch Julian, but Julian does not want to get into a fight with a one-armed man. He tries to get out of it, but Froggy insists. Finally, one of the lawyers comes over, thinking that Julian started the argument, and yells at Julian. Finally, Julian has enough. He punches the lawyer, starting a brawl. He leaves the club.
Caroline has gone to her mother's house. She says that she wants a divorce. Her mother tries to dissuade her. Caroline decides to spend the night with her mother.
At 1 am, Julian's father, Dr. English, comes to Caroline's mother's house with tragic news. Julian is dead. He killed himself by sitting in his car, with the motor running, in the garage. The next-door neighbor heard the motor running and investigated. Julian was dead when the neighbor arrived.
Best part of story, including ending:
STORY Although the story was very sad, I liked John O'Hara's understanding of the inner workings of the people of the era, his excellent dialogue, and his understanding of the effect of social status on people's behaviors.
Best scene in story:
In my favorite scene, when Harry Reilly finds out about Julian's death, he says to send flowers. Even though Julian threw a drink in his face, Harry says he always liked Julian.
Opinion about the main character:
I neither like nor dislike Julian English. I have very great compassion for him. His father belief that, like his grandfather, Julian is, basically, a ne'er do well, colors Julian's self-image and directs his suicidal behavior, literally and figuratively.