Modern Library Revue: #22 Appointment in Samarra

May 18, 2009 | 3 books mentioned 8 3 min read

coverFor no reason at all, I always thought this book was about horses and cavalry officers. (This is a good example of why, when you ask me a question and I answer, you should be careful to ascertain whether I know the answer, or if it’s just a feeling I have. Especially when I am giving you directions.) So, this novel, which I never wanted to read because I thought it was about horses, piqued my interest when I saw it mentioned in conjunction with Revolutionary Road (which I’ve yet to read) and forgotten novels about men feeling sad even though they have a lot of nice items in their homes. Because, rather than horses, that’s what Appointment in Samarra is about. It is about the nameless malaise of the moneyed man of the modern era – the madness which no Cadillac can assuage. And it’s about alcoholism. Two of your popular literary themes, really.

coverSo I read it, and it’s great. It’s like a lewd version of The Beautiful and Damned, but set in Pennsylvania, where people are slightly less fancy. The novel centers around Julian English, a cash-poor upper-cruster, who runs a Cadillac dealership. (Fitzgerald upper-crusters are too posh to even have jobs, let alone jobs in the automotive industry.) Julian drinks to excess with great frequency, and one day he throws a drink in a man’s face at the club, because the man is rich and fat and Irish Catholic and just de trop, somehow. And even though everyone in Gibbsville, PA is always doing grotesque drunken things at the club, this is for some reason the limit, and society begins to close ranks against Julian. After that, things go to complete shit very quickly. Julian, through desperation or madness or sheer orneriness, continues to behave badly, digging himself deeper with his peers and his wife, all the while drinking enough to kill an ox. At the end of the novel, his demise (figurative or literal, take your pick) is so inevitable it’s not even a spoiler. The title, taken from the epigraph, taken from Maugham, tells all.

Two things struck me about this book. One, it’s very spicy. I would imagine that it made an absolute scene upon its publication. The story talks a lot about all the fooling around that Julian and his wife Caroline did before they got married, and the romps they have after. It also talks about drunken foursomes, college girls “going the limit,” Parisian sex shows, men exposing themselves to helpless females, and “experienced” lady reporters. It’s the antidote to talking about the good old days when people cherished modesty.

coverSecondly, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to make this comparison, in addition to having obvious similarities with Fitzgerald (the man and the work), Appointment in Samarra is like a depression-era, mid-atlantic precursor to Under the Volcano. Not in its scope; Appointment in Samarra is a crude, meaningless sketch compared to the insanely complex (although perhaps equally meaningless) cosmologies that Malcolm Lowry wove together around Geoffrey Firmin. But the core of each novel is similar – the last day (or three) in the life of a man who is doomed. Each man (educated, posh), should be able to take himself in hand and pull himself together and stop drinking and stop perpetrating pointless cruelties on their respective wives, but they can’t, and they don’t, and you know they won’t from the first. They share the same fatal trajectory. But while Appointment in Samarra is easier and more fun to read, I thought Under the Volcano was sadder and better (so did the Modern Library, it seems); Firmin feels like a more real character, maybe because he was more of Lowry than English was of O’Hara. Or maybe because Lowry, a doomed, disastrous virtuoso, pulled himself together for one monumental achievement, while O’Hara, who sounds like a more garden-variety pain in the ass, managed to spread his talent out over a longer career. That’s just a feeling I have, though.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. I've noticed that over the last few months this site has started to resemble a high school English class in regard to the books that it discusses and champions, which makes me feel like I want to delete it from my bookmarks. Actually, I think I will. I don't see the point of coming here anymore. Maybe I will check back in at the end of the year to see if your aversion to contemporary fiction, both domestic and foreign, has waned. I doubt it will, though. This site seems to be stuck in the past, dissecting corpses that have already been picked clean. Have fun.

  2. Anonymous, I know your IP address well, and if you removing us from your bookmarks means I won't have to delete your often rude comments, that's just fine with me. Since the above comment is about as close to civil as your comments have ever been, however, I'll leave it up for posterity.

  3. Wow, I love comment drama! You tell him/her, Max! And I feel sort of annoyed, because didn't I **just** interview Joe Meno about his book The Great Perhaps which came out **this** month of **this** year? If that's not contemporary, I don't know what is. Geeze!

  4. If I didn't comment on your site you wouldn't have hardly any comments. And you know my IP address? Ohhhhh nooooo! Are you going to send the Internet Police to come and take away my computer? You know, short of a death threat or something insidious like that, rude, agressive comments are par for the course. I've also left a lot of nice comments. If you don't want the rabble commenting on your site then you should put a velvet rope around it.

  5. My point isn't that I could or would track you down (though I do know where you work). I have much better things to do with my time than try to track down an Anonymous internet hater. My point is that whenever we get an obnoxious comment, it traces back to you (and I know this because of your IP and the way you attempt to wield your words like blunt objects). If you disagree with what we're doing here, why don't you try participating in a constructive conversation about it. We're nothing if not receptive to our readers, whose ideas drive much of the content on the site. And furthermore, as Edan pointed out, your complaint is borderline ludicrous. Nowhere have we ever written that The Millions' mission is to cover literary fiction exclusively. In the last 24 hours alone we've run a post that's gotten over a dozen comments and we've offered a unique look at a highly anticipated work of literary fiction… Your problem is what exactly?

  6. I for one find it refreshing that a blog devotes this kind of space (increasingly more precious in the digital medium, considering the attention span of most blog readers) to revisit minor classics. Anonymous, to readers who appreciate good writing, being "stuck in the past" is not something that invites derision. The reason we still talk about novels that were written before you were a twinkle in your daddy's eye is because they invite a renewed and earnest (key word there) dialogue. I happen to enjoy the fact that the Millions often suggests a tone that you characterize as "high school English class." It reminds me that there are others out there equally engaged in sifting through an historically vast literary landscape and constantly finding something that demands to be discussed anew.
    P.S. If you had at some point attended the aforementioned high school English class, you might remember that it's "with regard" and not "in regard."

  7. Ha! Not to mention: "…wouldn't have hardly any…" and "agressive." Perhaps Anonymous the First should crack open a literary "corpse" or two and improve his/her language skills.

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