From Cotton Mather to Nathanael Hawthorne through to Thomas Pynchon, from the God-haunted rectitude of the first American Puritans to the sinister house of the seven gables through to Tyrone Slothrop of Gravity’s Rainbow — the greatest fictional embodiment of the doomed soul in modern American literature — U.S. writers have always been fascinated with the idea of the saved and the damned, the elect and the preterite… even John O’Hara, the dogmatically realist chronicler of the lives of mid-twentieth century Americans, isn’t exempt from this preoccupation: witness his brilliant choice of epigraph for Appointment in Samara, which equips us to fully understand the true nature of hisAmerican catastrophe:
There was a merchant in Bagdad 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 market-place 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 avoid 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 Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
—W. Somerset Maugham