Twelve pages into this book I found myself wondering what the hell its title meant.
So before I went any further, I looked it up. (Paraphrasing, much of this is courtesy Wikipedia) The title is actually an isolated reference to W. Somerset Maugham's retelling of a fable of sorts. Here's how it goes: A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace. The servant comes right back home, frightened, and tells the merchant that in the marketplace he was terrified by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, and that she made a threatening gesture towards him. Borrowing the merchant's horse, the servant then escapes to Samarra (miles away), where he believes Death will not be able to find him. The merchant goes to the marketplace and finds Death, inquring as to what happened. She says, "That was not a threatening gesture, 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."
And hell if I didn't still have a hard time understanding the reference. More on that in a minute.
But first, I have too admit that reading this book was like paying a metaphorical debt. A dear friend handed it over almost two years ago, insisting I read it because of its literary parallels to Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road (one of my favorite books). Though written in 1935, roughly twenty years prior, Appointment is, like Road, a biting send-up of suburban life in America. For some reason, I never made it to the first page back then. A recent search of my car revealed the aging paperback, under a seat, untouched and suddenly goading me like a cranky crying child. I owed it to my friend, and to myself, to fulfill the recommendation process, if you will.
And, as per always, the universe had a way of plopping the right words in front of me at precisely the right time. This book may not be super well-known, but hopefully it's a thing of cult knowledge; perhaps it's wisely pulled from musty university shelves once in awhile. O'Hara's characterizations of middle-class anxiety, human lust, and the day-to-day finaglings of relationships are more pitch-perfect than anything I've read recently. It's like the Great Depression-era version of Slate Magazine's "Dear Prudence" column; it's all the dirty little things we think and (these days) sometimes say. Back then, I don't think a lot of middle-class folk actually spoke frankly about things like condoms, masturbation, drinking problems, or mob activity in public. But O'Hara goes inside the heads of several twenty- and thirty-something couples to uncover the narrative that's there, even if the words aren't being spoken. Plus, the great thing is that one of his couples DOES speak these things, at least to each other.
They're the main show in this Philly suburb--Julian English, a ladder-climbing car man (Cadillacs), and his lovely, hyper-sexual wife, Caroline. It's Julian's downfall that O'Hara pieces together. The scary thing is that I didn't realize it until the end; in the meantime, the characters that dance around them are so colorful, so full of life, so multi-faceted that the reader may even muse that this very dark piece of work might have a happy ending. There's no real plot, just a series of ambling scenes that at times reminded me of parts of James Joyce's Dubliners. In other words, it's just like life--no linear plot, just the plotting along punctuated by successes and failures.
There's a young boxer named Al Grecco, but that's not his real name. He also delivers boxes of liquor and knows everyone's secrets--who's cheating on who, who's been at the roadhouse outside of town, and who owes who money. There are college girls who dance brazenly at the country club, and the men who've bagged them but no one knows. No one is virginal here, but everyone's trying to keep up appearances. The characters who grow are the ones who realize that the scary, secret thoughts are actually okay (and they learn to be honest about them).
Julian and Caroline navigate their neighborhood, their families, their social status...all with a booze-y wit that eventually catches up with them. Peeks into Julian's psyche reveal that their relationship is largely based on sex, and after an unfortunate situation at the country club's Christmas party, Ju (as she calls him) is forced to confront the breakdown of all of his veneers--his marriage, his friendships, even his smile.
O'Hara weaves Julian's history (and Caroline's) in with almost everyone else's along the way. Their observations of the crew are everyone's observations. Random thoughts pop up fluidly in the text, perfectly: Those two people slept together once, and it didn't go over well, so that's why they're awkward around each other now. That man's wife is cold, prudish, so he has to cheat. That girl isn't very attractive, but she "goes all the way" for ya, guaranteed! In other words, O'Hara writes all the stuff we float through our social situations thinking, or at least wondering about. (Not to say that these are observations we should run around verbalizing, but it sure is nice to live in a world in which the people around us acknowledge a mutual humanity!)
What Julian has to realize is that the easiest and most human emotion is often negativity; navigating away from that, to very purposefully love yourself and someone else, well that's the answer.
Here's the crux of the thing, and the tie-in with a servant at Samarra: Julian English starts to doubt himself. Bigtime. He wonders if he loves his wife at all. He wonders if he loves anyone, really. Like a little boy searching out trouble in a cookie jar, he goes on a bad-decision binge. Caroline is not innocent, but she is confused. Instead of speaking frankly, Julian moves to sacrifice his marriage very purposefully. In many ways, this is because he fears that recognizing the legitimacy of it will lead to heartache. There are so many baited moments in this book, breathless windows, within which these characters have the damn chance to speak the truths. To say, for example: hey, I don't know what's going on, but I'm worried, confused...help me, love me, let me know you. But those moments are missed. Just as a lot of us miss those moments everyday; the smartest among us take as many of the chances as we can, or when we miss them try to make them up later.
The servant headed to Samarra because he was scared out of his mind. Instead of seeking counsel within himself or with others, he ran for the hills. And in doing so, he sabotaged himself like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I called this post "self-fulfilling processes" because I think we're all trying to learn how NOT to be that guy hanging out in Samarra.
Huge moral here? Sometimes you have to forget the crazy, negative thoughts that swim around you. Sometimes people just need people. If you worry too much, or push yourself too far into your own mind...you might just create a prison of your own damn design. Sometimes it's the moment that matters, and you've got to seize it up.
I LOVED this book. I've already let that aforementioned friend know. I'm sure there are copies of this on Amazon for like five dollars; you should order one. It's a quick read, but it's so honest and refreshing as to leave a real impression.
[Cheers to all on a lovely, warm Sunday. I'm full of food and champagne. I've gotz to get back to packin' up! Oh, and I do promise that the next book reviewed will be more upbeat. I've read quite a few satires lately...need to shake this up and diversify!]