Prohibition, Society, and Self-fulfilling Prophecies

This is my review of Appointment in Samarra, by John O’Hara.

The title of the book comes from an old story, retold by W Somerset Maugham.

“There was a merchant in Baghdad 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 Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

Julian English is a fairly successful, popular thirty year old living in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. He’s an executive in the automobile industry, is happily married, and has a lively circle of friends. His only vice is drinking- during the Prohibition!- but nobody’s perfect. Despite the ominous beginning, at first the book is a light hearted mockery of American suburban society, with its superficial parties and clubs. Then one day in a fit of drunken annoyance, Julian throws his drink in the face of a business associate. The party is ruined, and so is Julian’s social life. Or is it?

Over the next couple of days Julian, fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol, ‘ruins’ his marriage, reputation, and livelihood. And, as promised by the title, it ends in tragedy. I liked this book because it reminded me that so many things in life- misfortune, friendship, social status- are just a matter of perspective. One can never tell for sure whether a decision is right or wrong, or even if there is a right or wrong. Julian’s happiness was stifling and boring, but the alternative was worse. Whether or not it was a self fulfilling prophecy is up to the reader to decide. The narration is fast paced and descriptive, and he plot is well planned.

Read it, if you didn’t like The Great Gatsby. Read it, if you want a book on a serious topic that isn’t pretentious and dull. 4/5.

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