John O’Hara, “Appointment in Samarra” (1934) – Time to come clean- I thought this would be about American skullduggery in Samara, Russia, maybe around the Russian Civil War, or else Samarra, Iraq, maybe as a prelude to our oil politics there. I saw it on that Modern Library 100 best novels of the twentieth century list — pretty high up too as I recall — and my mind just… made the leap!
Well, it wasn’t about that. It’s about Julian English, who’s basically Gatsby divided by Babbitt, living in Pennsylvania and screwing up his life during the jazz age. It’s fine, for what it is, but I can’t help but notice how much more interesting it would be if “Ju” English were an agent of the nascent American security state in 1919 Russia or Iraq…
Anyway, Julian seems to have it all- wife who only resents him some of the time, successful car dealership, didn’t take too bad of a bath in the stock market crash, firmly ensconced in the boozy upper classes of his small Pennsylvania city. But dang it, he’s just sick of it all, so on a whim he starts fucking stuff up- throwing drinks in faces, nailing mob molls, getting in fights with one-armed vets. He’s looking for a way out, and he finds it.
Julian’s a cipher. The side characters, like his wife and his bootlegger pal, are more interesting and O’Hara does an ok job depicting them. But honestly, what was so interesting about jazz age pathos when the whole world — and the rest of the country — was on fire? **