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  • Writer's pictureCraig Messenger

Judging Books by Their Covers | 006

John O’hara was an apt observer of western society between the two world wars, allowing him to whittle into square relief all of the shadowy alcoves of suburban America. Many of his characterizations in Appointment in Samarra have become enduring cul-de-sac stereotypes. The omnipresent neighbors and the quiet streets. The controlling, jealous partners and their unimpressed parents. The country clubs. The car dealerships (well, but – I mean, some are good. You definitely want some of those. At least a few.)

But Samarra isn’t actually about suburbia. It’s in suburbia. As the title and its opening epigraph from Somerset’s Sheppey betray, this is a story about humanity’s self destructive tendencies – and the wild ride they careen into. Overall, not the best lot of covers I’ve ever laid eyes on, but we can work with it.

The colored-in-crayon aspect of this cover immediately appealed to me, but it doesn’t have much symbolism to work with. A rogue ray of light curves through the meat of the design, illustrating Julian’s circuitous path to self-destruction? A mid-century interpretation of dynamic headlights? The Road Not Taken?

I just like the colors I think. And the French!


Caroline’s off center stare is the star here, and we are immediately drawn to it due to like the rule of thirds or the Golden Ratio or some other geometric postulate. Julian – Caroline’s hubby – is off with a dancing partner, their faces shielding each other’s from the judging eye of the viewer. It’s immediately evident that Caroline, in what is perhaps the most lovely lavender dress on Lantenengo Street, has seen this little number a time or two before.

It’s a pretty good cover but it does kind of give off the impression that the book is about swinging parties or at least potent green envy or something – but it’s not. There are better options out there.


God this one is terrible. And it’s everywhere! If you search for the book, it’s one of the first images to come up. I mean look at this. It looks like the heir to the Clip Art fortune started a wrapping paper business and then swallowed up our delightful book with heinous sheets of holiday cheer. If you study it closely there are multiple different depictions of ice cubes.



"You get a few drinks in you and you want to be irresistible.” – page 185

Now we’re getting somewhere. Julian English is a man who wrongfully thinks that he gets what he wants, and he has a hell of a time reconciling this with the fact that the world around him – the women and the “old friends” and the customers – really doesn’t like him very much. Looking at this cover, you can smell his breath and hear his mumbly, gruff voice, and it doesn’t take a supercharged imagination to envision his still sitting at the bar when the lights come on.


This is the crowning cover. In Samarra, Julian’s car materializes during both the beginning of his end and the definite end of his end, in two different scenes. The first being the scene where Julian loses his wife – the one person still somewhat, kind of by his side – for good, and the second being the climatic end of Mr. English’s tailspin.

Julian’s dejection is well captured here, knees pigeon-toed and shoulders droopy while he enjoys his transitory smoke. He’s resigned to his fate to destroy his entire life in pursuit of whatever small, trivial victories he can rack up along the way. There weren’t many.


Don’t let the gloomy mood of this artwork and my commentaries on it shy you away from the book itself. It’s wonderful. We root for Julian’s demise and O’hara engineers Mr. English’s missteps to be so vivid and entertaining that they almost seem like memories in my own head. His dialogue is first-class and the games he plays with his character’s words certainly foreshadow his later work as a playwright.

Nearing the end of the story, Caroline English is demonstrably upset, and her mother is crafting patronizing theories as to why.

“Are you pregnant? Mother wants to hear all about it.” – Mother
“Caroline wants to cry.” – Caroline
“Oh, have you missed the second period, dear?” – M
“Yes. Someone was in our seats. Oh, Mother, please. I’m not pregnant.” – C

You can buy a brand new copy here

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