Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

House of Cards: Love, Faith and Other Social Expressions, by David Ellis Dickerson.  Riverhead Books (2009), 369 pages.

Sadly, I must begin this review with a tirade against the cover art.  There are other things to say, much of them positive, but the cover is so astonishingly bad (especially given the nature of the story inside) I feel I have no other option.  First you must understand that the author of this memoir is writing about his time working for Hallmark.  In the creative department.  Where drawing happens.  Granted, he was hired as a writer, not as an artist, but still—everyone he works with is thinking and talking all day long about design.

Ironically the publisher of House of Cards—also a business in which good design is essential—opted to throw out all of the (presumably) inspired ideas that were offered and go instead with this mish-mash of scribbles. I couldn’t even tell what the picture was supposed to be until I stared at it for a few minutes.  And then when I did understand—a man falling (climbing?) into a card—my reaction was still, “Huh?”  And the font.  Is it supposed to connote cleverness?  Maybe it’s meant to mimic one of the Hallmark lines? Whatever.  All I see are some really ugly words that are sloppy and unreadable.  It’s not remotely charming or funny and it doesn’t convey anything about the content of the book.  Even the square drawing that is meant to be a cubicle doesn’t make sense since the author never worked in a cubicle and even if he had, I never got the impression it would be in this condition. If we had an award here for Covers That Suck, I would be nominating this one.

This cover is so bad I actually decided to send a note to Riverhead Books imploring them to design something new (and hopefully better) for the paperback version.  I visited their site to get the editor’s address when I discovered, to my dismay, that House of Cards was not an unfortunate misstep by the design staff but apparently a fine example of their whole aesthetic. Needless to say I won’t be sharing my thoughts with them after all. What would be the point?  I don’t have time to re-design all their books.

Let us now proceed to the inside of the book, which I am pleased to say is a huge improvement over the pointless cover.  The author, Dave Dickerson, gets a job at Hallmark in Kansas City, Missouri.  He is 27 years old and he is a Christian—the kind that doesn’t have sex before marriage.  Which means that even though he has a girlfriend he has been seeing for six years and they are engaged, he is a virgin. Although Kansas City is a very conservative town, his friends at Hallmark think he’s crazy and keep telling him, “Jesus Christ, Dave. Fuck her already.”

Dickerson can be funny—not remotely in the same league as David Sedaris, which the back cover compares him too—but still very entertaining.  He also has the ability to look at himself with some real psychological insight, which makes his sense of humor much more interesting than it would be were he just trying to make us laugh.  The relationship between Dickerson and his girlfriend is one of the most interesting sub-plots in the book (along with his metamorphosis from Christian to atheist) but the main story revolves around life at Hallmark and the daily struggle to come up with a new card. The absurdity of attempting to be creative in a corporate culture that forbids anything “different” makes this memoir a must-read for anyone trying to make a living as an artist.

“Edith, I’ve got one word for you: bunnies,” I said proudly. “It looks like they’re absolutely killing with images of bunny rabbits.”
“In our competition?” said McNicely.  She was in the wings, at her computer, and looked distracted. “Maybe they’re trying.  But that’s not what does well.”
I froze in mid heel-click.  She hadn’t even looked at my charts.
“What do you mean bunnies don’t do well?”
“Unless you’re doing Easter, no.  You must be looking at the wrong things.” She wheeled in her chair to face me and counted off on her fingers. “Bears and chipmunks are always number one.  Then mice, then bunnies, and then squirrels.  Then pandas.  Every so often our artists give us skunks, just to be different, I guess.  I wish I could just tell them, ‘Guys, skunks aren’t cute!’ They just aren’t.  Even pandas are a risk, I think because they’re black and white.”
I tried a bad joke. “Why? Are our customers against miscegenation?”
She shrugged off my comment gently, the way you would ignore a friend who’d just farted. “Pandas are two colors, and the most popular animals are one.  And with pandas, the colors are in odd places, like black around the eyes. They’re more confusing to look at.”
“But bunnies and squirrels are one color.  They should be popular.”
“Bunnies have long ears, and squirrels have long tails.  Depending on the artist, it can throw off the proportions.  That’s why chipmunks work.  They’re like squirrels with no tail.”
But chipmunks have stripes, I wanted to say, but I knew she’d have another answer, and I knew it would be something I’d never thought about and probably didn’t understand.  Christ.  I felt completely overwhelmed again.  So I made another joke.
“What about snakes?”
She smiled politely. “We don’t do snakes,” she said. “That would be terrible.”

Reviewed by Cindy Blackett