Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara: Let’s Talk About The Drink With Ice, Thrown by Julian English into Harry Reilly’s Face

What the hell had he done, he wondered. He had thrown a drink in a man’s face. An especially terrible guy who should have had a drink thrown in his face a long while ago. It wasn’t as if Harry Reilly were a popularity contest winner or something. If most people told the truth they would agree that Reilly was a terrible person, a climber, a nouveau riche even in Gibbsville where fifty thousand dollars was a sizable fortune. (p.97)

I am only a little more than one third of the way through this novel, but I can’t stop thinking about Julian English throwing his drink into Harry Reilly’s face one evening at the club. He threw it so hard that the ice left black marks on Harry’s face…but also on Julian’s social acceptance.

My mother has said to me that life “spins on a hair”, meaning that the slightest choice, or action, can alter the whole course of one’s existence. It seems that Julian’s life will be inexorably altered with this event which occurred early in the novel.

Was it unplanned? He was thinking about how much he would like to throw his drink at Harry one minute, and we dwell in this fantasy with him until the next thing we know, he has really done it.

Is Julian unwilling to let Harry have attention by telling the stories that he does, pausing in just the right places and looking over his shoulder before hitting the punch line?

Is it that Harry is an Irish Catholic, and Julian harbors a resentment or prejudice against such a heritage? Or, maybe he’s jealous that Harry is the man with money to whom everyone seems to owe a little…

I am curious about all these reasons, not to mention the path of destruction that Julian seems to be taking. He is only thirty, and yet he has a wife. A home. Supportive parents. A business selling Cadillacs. And he has recently opened his wife’s Christmas present to him: a leather pigskin box with his initials stamped on them in gold ink. Not J. E., but J. McH. E. as he likes. Now he has a place to put his studs, and I find myself questioning him, while at the same time longing to experience how people really lived in the late 1930s. John O’Hara has a way of making it seem simple and risqué at the same time.

7 thoughts on “Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara: Let’s Talk About The Drink With Ice, Thrown by Julian English into Harry Reilly’s Face

  1. Dear Bellezza: Thanks so much for hosting this! John O’Hara has long inhabited that universe of “writers I am one day going to read;” I’m afraid he would still be there without your read-along.
    I actually finished the novel last weekend and I’m still mulling over my reaction to it. First, I definitely think it’s worth reading and am very happy that I finally did so. Second, I’m not convinced it should be in the “100 greatest” of the 20th century, English language addition. Maybe but . . . Perhaps a question better posed for the end of the month?
    My own answer to your specific question ties in to my assessment of the novel as a whole (which I’m still considering) and my reservations about it. I don’t think we quite know why Julian threw that drink and I don’t think Julian himself knows. As you point out, he’s fantasizing in great detail about doing so, then he thinks something along the lines of “well, he knew he wouldn’t do it.” Then O’Hara cuts to a different scene/character and we think — that’s that. The next thing we know, a character comes in, akin to the messenger or chorus in an ancient Greek play, and blurts out the news that Julian has done precisely what he told us, in his internal monologue, that he WOULDN’T do! In other words, Julian is a creature of impulse, who neither knows or is able to control himself. By taking such an action, he’s stepping outside (very, very outside) the customs and conventions of his “tribe,” i.e., monied, upper class WASPs of 1930s small town Pennsylvania. Julian has ignored/transgressed the limits; once done, he’ll do it again. O’Hara’s title tells us from the outset what the result of his transgression will be.
    I do think the factors you point to were in play, i.e., Harry Reilly is new money, Irish and Catholic and just a bit crude by Julian’s standard (didn’t Harry often say “you can take the boy out of the patch [i.e., little coal town] but not the patch out of the boy?). All of these offend Julian’s sensibilities as a born member of the tribe that Harry aspires to join. Harry also has, as you point out, more money than almost anyone else, which no doubt creates resentment. There is also a suggestion (can’t remember where it comes; my apologies if I’m getting ahead) that Harry was an unsuccessful rival for Caroline, Julian’s wife. Julian is a jealous man, so there may also be an element of sexual tension involved. I’m nevertheless not totally convinced that any (or all) of these explain Julian’s motives (I think it’s possible that Julian is just bored & out of control). I’m also not sure O’Hara actually wants to spell it out.
    One thing that surprised me about the novel was the wealth of detail about how these people lived. It very much reminded me of one of those 19th century novels where you learn everything — how much money a family had, how they lived, their ancestry, what their houses were like and so on. Do you think O’Hara is showing us how very materialistic, and perhaps ultimately empty, this culture is? That it’s essentially hollow and that Julian, as one of its premier sons, is also hollow, with no inner values really but enough intelligence to see the emptiness of a life confined to the same round of people, parties and country club events?
    Another point I found interesting was the opening, which began with a brief scene of Lute Fliegler and his wife, who appear well matched and happy, albeit on a lower social plan than Julian. A contrast perhaps, between the two marriages?
    Also interesting was, as I alluded to above, the fact that the key scene in this part of the novel, the drink flung into poor Harry’s face, occurred off stage, so to speak. Why do it this way? Rather odd, don’t you think? Again, reminds me of classical drama, where we learn through a minor character or chorus that Oedipus gouged out his eyes, or Clytemnestra murdered her husband. Think O’Hara’s getting all artsy on us?

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  2. Janakay, I am so enriched by your thoughtful comments, which are often as worthy as a post of themselves. I have taken some time to respond to your thoughts because I wanted to finish the book first, and hopefully converse with you more thoughtfully in doing so.

    I wonder about its placement in the greatest 100 Novels of the 20th century, too, much as I do about The Great Gatsby. Perhaps it is because they both seem to capture an era, and the unfulfilled longings of man (coupled with foolish choices, at least in Julian’s case). O’Hara’s writing reminded me a bit of Hemingway, at times, because it was deceptively simple in that in few words he could create an aura for me…a nuance, or dialogue, that put me right in the midst of the characters. I love that.

    I agree that we don’t quite know why, exactly, he threw the drink in Harry’s face. It was impulsive, just like so many other choices he made. Sleeping around as he did, with a lovely wife at home? Who’s to say what caused these terrible events other than poor judgement. Or, being impulsive. Or, being selfish. Or, maybe immature? He did not seem to have a very good grasp of his life in any area.
    I like how you point out that he may be bored, and that ultimately, O’Hara does not spell it out. For me, Julian was simply a man of weak character.

    I like how O’Hara “book-ended” the novel with Fleigers; it began with them, and ended with them, and for me they were a successful couple: happily married, well united, not materialist or intent on achieving social status. It made an interesting contrast to the English marriage and even those in their circle.

    I liked how the 1930’s were portrayed, from the drinking to the cars to the lifestyles. As I said earlier, the novel surely made me feel that I, too, was living in those times. At one point, I might have thought that those decades were “simpler”, and now I see that they were as fraught with complications and moral dilemmas as we are today.

    In discussing this with you I feel that I have come to a better understanding, and a deeper appreciation, of this book which I quite enjoyed. Thank you so much for reading it with me, and being involved in such discussion.

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    • Dear Bellezza, please forgive the delay in responding to your very interesting comment and your kind words! I’m afraid I’m a bit distracted these days, which causes me some difficulty in focusing/writing.
      I totally agree with you that O’Hara’s “bookending” of his novel with scenes from the Fleigers’ marriage is intended as a contrast of their succesful partnership with the trainwreck of the English marriage. I’m not sure, however, that I see Lute & Irma Flieger as totally unmaterialistic and/or indifferent to social status. Remember how Irma thinks about the country club, which Lute says they’ll join next year when they’re financially able to do so? Also, Irma’s very proud of her ancestry (wasn’t her Grandfather Doane awarded some war medal no one else in that part of the state had?) and the fact that her family had lived in Gibbsville much longer than most of the other families on Lantenengo Street; with respect to the latter, she’s concerned that it will become overrun with Jewish families and the “nice children” will pick up Jewish accents. At the end of the novel, as she and Lute settle in, there’s a brief allusion to the possibility of Lute’s becoming the new head of the Cadillac dealership and a clear worry that their comfortable life could be disrupted if he loses his job. I think the materialism is there, but it’s rather different from that of Julian and his circle is that the Flieglers are having to work for what they get, rather than being born to it; social elevation and increased wealth is something they strive for, or aspire to; they’re working for it (minor point: Lute has a war medal, Julian didn’t serve) and don’t have time to be bored or self destructive. Could they also represent a “good materialism” as opposed to bad, just as their marriage serves as a contrast to the Julian-Caroline marriage?
      I think your comparison of this novel to Gatsby is fascinating–wish I’d thought of it! Gatsby’s a tough novel for me; I have to admit that it was only on my third read (which occurred a couple of years ago) that I even began to have a glimmer of what the fuss was about. Gatsby’s a great contrast to Julian, don’t you think? Gatsby may be totally mistaken in his goals, in what he aspires to, but he DOES aspire, he has ideals. Julian has nada, he’s the furthest thing possible from a tragic hero who’s brought low because of some interior flaw, he’s an empty guy who’s bored with his emptiness.
      I think you made a great point about O’Hara’s style. Isn’t he great with dialogue?
      I also think you’re spot on about his detailed portrayal of the 1930s; like you, I felt that I was almost inhabiting that little, western Pennsylvania town. In some respects, the novel was almost like an anthropology text on “The Tribal Life and Mating Habits of the Upper Class WASP Tribe of Western Pennsylvania” circa 1930 version!
      There’s just so much you can say about this novel, isn’t there? We haven’t even discussed the role/symbol of “the car,” that quintessential American accoutrement to the good life (the ultimate status symbol is having a cadillac & Julian dies in one)! This was such a great choice for a read along and I’ve enjoyed our discussion immensely. Thanks again!

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  3. I’m not to page 94 yet, but what struck me was how contingent the drink-throwing was when it first happens. He’s like, I’m not going to do it, I’m not going to do it. Then the next thing we hear is he’s done it.

    The event that, I take it, sets everything in motion could just as easily not have happened.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s almost like he’s caught in a vortex, that he cannot stop himself from the path he has (perhaps unwillingly?) set upon. How right you are, that this decision or action, sets everything else in motion.

      Now we just “have” to decide if his life is a result of fate, or foolishness, or pride, or…? I look forward to further discussions as more of us read and finish this fascinating novel. I’m so glad to have you read along!

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