Review of 52 McGs, edited by Chris Calhoun
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/5/06
Certainly more wasteful books (in terms of unrecycled paper and deforestation, as well as intellectual inertia) have been published than 52 McGs, edited by Chris Calhoun, which is a collection of fifty-two of the supposedly most interesting, and well-written, of seven hundred or so obituaries published by a New York Times writer named Robert McGill Thomas, Jr. But even the vapid prose of such hacks as Elizabeth Wurtzel, Dave Eggers, Maya Angelou, Joyce Carol Oates, T.C. Boyle, and David Foster Wallace, can at least be defended by stating that there may have actually been an attempt at something creative going on, despite their repeated failures. This book, a 192 page paperback, put out in 2001, a year after Thomas himself died of cancer, by the Citadel Press, however, could not be more pointless, despite its grandiose subtitle: The Best Obituaries From Legendary New York Times Writer Robert McG. Thomas, Jr.
The book tries to hagiographize Thomas, an anomic writer of little renown, beforehand, into death’s equivalent of Ring Lardner, the famed sportswriter, or H.L. Mencken, the famous curmudgeonly social critic. To read the gushing foreword by novelist Thomas Mallon, one would believe that the only reason the New York Times stayed afloat in the 1990s was due to the scintillating prose of McG., whose reign as the obit writer of record lasted a mere decade, and the death-thirsty public’s appetite for his ever so slight spinning of the traditional form. And I do say slight, since that’s all that occurs within these pages. Yes, McG. did add in quirky details about his subjects, that others would not have done, but while that works for about twelve to fifteen of the most notable decedents- such as pool hustler Minnesota Fats; Edward Lowe, the inventor of Kitty Litter; celebrity aviator Douglas ‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan; and Three Stooges comic foil Emil Sitka, the majority of the profiles in this book are of incredibly average people, whose claims to fame were dubious, and the telling of those claims, by McG. a bit bloated and forced. And, while the introduction of the claims may be a notable innovation, the prose with which they are conveyed is rather ho-hum. If you’ve ever read the vapid dronings of a food critic at an arts alternative newsweekly, you will get the level of ‘innovation’ and ‘depth’ this book, and the writer, can justly claim for the obituary form.
In short, while there is little doubt his columns were a bit humorous, there is also little doubt that a book like this is an exemplary example of everything that’s wrong in publishing today. The only way such a work could ever see print is through a network of cronyism. I wonder who at Citadel Press was Calhoun’s contact, or ex-frat buddy? Or did the New York Times, itself, de facto subsidize this book? Because, there is simply no way that a book like this could ever sell outside of Manhattan- and I know it didn’t, for I found my copy of it languishing at a markdown bargain book table at a Barnes & Noble, here in Texas, for a mere buck. Does the publishing industry have such contempt for the reading public that it feels it can forcefeed such pointless material and the masses will lap it up? I guess so. Does it really believe that listings of marginally interesting celebrity wannabes has more interest than real stories of real human characters?
Perhaps so, but it does the intelligent reader little good, as this book is three quarters skimmable, and certainly not, as some of the book’s blurbs claim, a work by a ‘masterful writer who transformed the obituary into an art form.’ Nor does McG. delve into any ‘deeper truths.’ In fact, the book is a veritable ode to the short attention spans, dumbing down of complex issues into sound bites, and general lack of depth that modern American readers have been wired into with the cyber-revolution. The obits go on for only a couple of pages, yet they give no real depth nor context to the dead, and only highlight their most freakish, inane, or pitiable deficiencies. That these obits were somehow nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 says all one needs to know about the contemptible intellectual rape of our culture. That said, these obituaries are not poorly written, in any way, shape, nor form, but given the strictures of the obituary, this book is like a love song to the ‘art’ of business letter writing, and hailing a writer who developed a closing to rival Sincerely, or Regards, as a master to rival Herman Melville.
Here is a sample of the ‘great stylings’ from McG., in his obit titled Minnesota Fats, A Real Hustler With A Pool Cue, Is Dead:
Although his frequent claim that he had never lost a game ‘when the cheese was on the table,’ was more fabrication than exaggeration, according to his first wife, Mr. Wanderone [Fats’ real name] was in fact a master hustler who tended to be just as good as he needed to be when he needed to be.
Well, sorry, but if this is the sort of prose that makes one a ‘legend’ to the New York Times, these days, I can state with certainty that the truly great journalist/writers of the past- Lardner, Mencken, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Oscar Wilde- have little to fear in regards to usurpation of their laurels with this work.
Thus, it is not without some irony that I can state that the actually best written and most moving McG. in the book is the only one not written by McG., himself, but about his own death, and written by a Michael T. Kaufman. In it, we get a real sense of a man, not a hit and miss semi-satire, which was the deceased’s forte. Clearly, this book was a labor of love, by Calhoun, who is identified merely as a fan of McG.’s (ok, a fan of obits, sheesh!) but it is simply not a joy to read, even for its handful of genuinely funny moments. In a sense, this book could be considered a McG. on the relevance of the modern publishing industry, which is so creatively and ethically bankrupt that it must spoon pabulum like this to readers too lethargic and narcotized to care that they are being insulted.
The industry is survived by millions of disappointed readers still hoping for wit, enlightenment, and publishers who will choose to engage them as beings with a brain.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Midwest Book Review website.]
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