Sunday, February 21, 2010


It's amazing what you don't know sometimes. I remember having a lengthy conversation with an old friend about subcultures once after my dad became sucked into a deer-watching subculture in our town one summer. There's a wooded part of my town that has something like 2,000 deer living in one square mile, and it's about a quarter-mile away from where I grew up. My dad would ride his bike out to *the* deer-watching spot and there would always be half a dozen people there, including one man who photographed all the fawns every year and created photo albums of them. He usually had his album with them. They came with binoculars, lawn chairs, the whole nine yards. Who knew?

Apparently, there is a similar subculture of obituary fans. There's a Usenet group. There are conventions. There are obituary writers that they venerate, and would be as excited to meet in person as they would to meet any celebrity. And as of several years ago, there's a book.

I picked up The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson mainly because when I started my new job, I sat next to the woman who does the obits for all of our newspapers until my permanent desk opened up. We used to talk about them if she got an interesting one or a weird one. I specifically remember a lengthy conversation about whether or not to include that a man was survived by his great-niece. Normally the policy is to just list immediate family, but this was all the man had left.

The book is decent, but it's also hard to say much about. Johnson begins by introducing her own fascination with obituaries. She goes on to talk about obit conventions, and to profile several obituary writers who are giants in their fields. The man who works for a London paper that was responsible for introducing a little humor into obits. A woman in Oregon who does "life profiles" of ordinary, interesting people who have recently passed. The genesis of the concept of signed obituaries of well-known people by their friends.

She also dives a little into why they interest people. My favorite example related to the obits of Rosemary Clooney and of a well-known Hollywood producer (I believe, and can't go check because I have a cat on my lap). Both were present when Robery Kennedy was assassinated. The producer had driven him to the hotel. Clooney was standing near him. Both had spent much of the rest of their lives getting over it, and neither had fully succeeded at that. It's the sort of detail that can't really come out until the story of someone's life is finished.

The book is basically a tour of the obits subculture. Who likes them, why they like them, the people that create them. It's the sort of thing, frankly, that either interests you or it doesn't. If a book on this topic sounds fascinating to you, you will probably enjoy reading this one. If the topic sounds duller than watching paint dry, you won't like the book at all.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Truth and Fiction

I am glad I didn't know much about the Collyer brothers before scoring E.L Doctorow's Homer and Langley last weekend at the library. It was #1 on my unofficial TBR list. I knew only a lurid, sketchy outline of their story: that they had been born into a prominent, wealthy New York family. That they had lived some time during the twentieth century. That they had withdrawn from the world and hoarded junk in their mansion, bales and bales of newspapers, rusted-out appliances, even an entire car, somehow. That one of them was blind. That when a neighbor noticed a funny smell emanating from their mansion, it took the police days to dig through the garbage to find the bodies of Langley (who had died when one of his piles collapsed on him) and Homer (the blind brother, who had died of starvation and dehydration just a few feet away).

That was all I knew, but it was enough to fascinate anyone. I thoroughly enjoyed E.L Doctorow's novel, which really took as its theme "living life on your own terms". In his novel, Langley had fought in WWI and returned home suffering the effects of mustard gas inhalation. Homer had already gone blind, as a teenager, and dwelled in a shadowy world of music and longing. Langley was given to insane projects, which is where all the newspapers came in: he was attempting to create one eternal edition of the news. They didn't exactly disengage. They made frequent forays into the world. They ran "tea dances" during Prohibition. Homer had a young, live-in piano student who eventually became one of the nuns murdered in Nicaragua. They had a complement of live-in servants, including a woman from New Orleans whose son was a jazz trumpeter who was killed in WWII and a Japanese couple who were interred during the same time period. They met a band of hippies during an anti-war rally and allowed them to live with them for a season.

They were just afraid of things. Not brave enough to marry and settle into a normal job. Not brave enough to cope with institutions such as the gas company and the banks. They lacked the strength to channel their passion for the world around them into some sort of normally accepted activity, like Rotary Club or church work, or even something extraordinary but still normal, like medical research or a writing hobby. What they wound up with, instead, was a series of strange projects that both engaged the world and isolated them from it. At no point in the novel do either of them seem 'crazy.' Their conversations are like anybody's, it's their reaction to external stimuli that's off.

Except. It didn't happen that way, none of it. The real Collyer brothers were born in the 1880s and died in 1948. Homer went blind late in life, and the purpose of all the newspapers was so that he could 'catch up' when Langley's prescribed diet did its work and restored his sight. Langley was not a veteran of any war. Both, clearly, were long gone by the time of hippies and the nuns in Nicaragua, and were in serious late-stage decline during World War II.

What Doctorow has done, clearly, is to use the idea of such a pair to express his points about the boundaries of sanity, and about how people engage with their world. But it sort of wrecked the book in retrospect for me. While I was reading it, the subcurrent of mid-twentieth century history felt organic, but looking back, it feels slightly ridiculous. Particularly the bit about the hippies, which also seems incongruous. Why would even hippies stay a season in a house with no real furniture, just stacks of newspapers, a rusted Model T, a dozen gutted pianos, radios, typewriters, bicycles, etc. from various eras, and other random junk? And the practical problems of their 'lifestyle' are sort of skimmed over: how did they eat? how did they go decades without seemingly paying their bills or drawing their creditors' notice? I mean, I've gotten a raft of calls and letters merely for being a week late (within my grace period!) on a car payment. How did Con Ed not care for years? If they were leaving their house, why didn't anyone notice, or try to help?

I have to say, this is the first one I've read since I started this blog that I truly don't know how to judge.