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 find 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 market-place 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.”
-W. Somerset Maugham
And with this short tale from W. Somerset Maugham does John O’Hara begin his debut novel, appropriately entitled Appointment in Samarra and published in 1934. I remember still the first time I read the prologue. A feeling of discomfort swept over me as I came to the realization of the meaning – one cannot escape fate, a debatable point to be sure, I told myself, and yet, the hair continued to stand on the back of my neck.
Specifically, the story involves a broad cast of characters of varying backgrounds during a three-day period around Christmas 1930 in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a mining town in the vicinity of Pittsburgh. Despite the many personalities that are introduced, the focus is clearly set on Julian and Caroline English, who are numbered among the social elite of Gibbsville, and while many in the town admire and envy them, their reality both within and between them is not reflected in their refined and sophisticated image, as Julian and Caroline face pasts that to most are coveted but are littered with experiences that have resulted in two very damaged adults.
The main action begins with Julian throwing his highball into the face of a social climber at the exclusive Lantenengo Country Club at the Christmas Eve Party, and while this status seeker is detested, he happens to be very rich and to whom Julian owes a good deal of money, and it is through this thoughtless action that Julian sets in motion his personal appointment in Samarra. Through the torrent of these three days, the reader follows the various plot lines with increasing uncertainty as mistakes mount leading to the story’s climax, one that begs the question: does fate await us, too?