I loved reading this book! And, too, I see immediately why Jeff Wood of the Whistlestop Bookshop has recommended it to me. I get the comparison to Gatsby and why, for my purposes, it’s better than Gatsby, in the way that it plunks me down not just in the clubby world of the wealthy set in the thirties, but the way in which it tells me more about the place where those characters live. In Gibbsville, Pennsylvania which is, according to the introduction by Charles McGrath, a lightly disguised version of Pottsville (where the author grew up) the economy is based on coal. Anyone in Gibbsville who had any important money made it in coal; anthracite. And O’Hara explains the difference between bituminous and soft or anthracite coal mining (which is the Gibbsville kind) and how in around 1925, anthracite mining declined as the labor unions gained strength and oil was introduced as a viable heating fuel. The way of life was changing in Gibbsville as the book opens.
Mostly, the story is told through the point of view of the protagonist, Julian English. But parts are told from Julian’s wife, Caroline’s point of view and from Julian’s co-worker, the Pennsylvania Dutch middle-class car salesman, Lute Fliegler’s. Very occasionally, we get the point of view of the liquor-running small town gang flunky, Al Grecco, who chooses the gang life over the coal mine because, “That kind of work was hard work.” Different points of view here allow a fuller picture of the various kinds of lives humming along side of the rarefied life of the rich than, say, Nick Carroway’s view in Gatsby.
Julian English, a wealthy member of the country club set, the son of a doctor and owner of the Cadillac dealership in town, has understood his place in the social structure of Gibbsville from his birth. In Gibbsville, the social hierarchy is strictly stratified — the wealthy ivy-league crowd on top and the Pennsylvania Dutch hard-working middle class below. The other residents, Irish Catholics and anyone who is Jewish are lower still and face the blatant prejudices of the day. Catholics are tolerated if they have been able to make money in coal or the railroads, but Jews continue to face vicious discrimination.
The arc of the story takes place over just a couple of days, Christmas and the day after. Those days are filled with lavish country club parties, major league bouts of drinking and our man Julian behaving badly. After he throws a drink into the face of a man he detests at the country club, it’s all downhill. The next day, Christmas day, he tries to apologize and do the right thing, but once he starts to slide, like one of his Cadillacs over the wintry streets of Gibbsville, he’s out of control, destined to crash. In a scotch-fuelled two-day binge, Julian’s bad behavior intensifies. He fights with his best friends, is unfaithful to his wife and cannot find a way back to the safety of his wealth and privilege.
Throughout the novel, we follow Julian’s inner struggle. He’s lost, really, searching for meaning in a life which, in the final analysis, is shallow. On the afternoon of Christmas Day, Julian leaves the country club in a hurry. The car jumped out of the snow and Julian drove as fast as he could to the quickest way out of Gibbsville. But we know, even before he turns the car around and heads back, that he cannot escape. Like the parable Death Speaks by Somerset Maugham quoted in the beginning of this novel, there is no other way out for Julian: whatever it was he was going back to and whatever it was, he had to face it. In facing it, in beginning to examine that life, he must put an end to it.
Appointment in Samara is a rip-roaring high speed race through a particular time and place worth knowing and reading about. I recommend it.