Rewatching Slacker

SlackerAlthough I can’t imagine any of the characters in the film Slacker being terribly nostalgic about anything, it’s worth noting that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Richard Linklater’s gem. Sanctified in The Onion A.V. Club’s “New Cult Canon” and topping numerous critics’ “best indie film of all-time” rankings, Slacker is an odd addition to any best-of list. After all, this is seemingly a film about not giving a shit.

At least, that’s the most immediate impression on first watching Slacker, that and its nontraditional film narrative. Slacker doesn’t follow a story arc of one or two characters, and it’s not a collection of marginally intertwined stories, like Altman’s Short Cuts or the animated Heavy Metal. In Slacker the camera lens floats from one set of people to another, lingering for a minute here or ten minutes there. The camera eavesdrops on a stream of unrelated interactions—in sum, a day in the life of Austin, Texas, circa 1991. Often these moments have no distinguishable beginning or ending, just slices of time in the company of cafe philosophers, conspiracy theorists, guys trying to get laid, and girls trying to be taken seriously.

Entirely linear, Slacker never flashes back or forward, always remaining in the moment, giving the film a kind of bald, unprotected sensation. The camera drops into discussions midstream, giving us the opportunity to watch and listen but leaving it entirely for us to surmise backstories and histories. Then, as one or two people in the group grow fidgety or distracted—or bored—they move on, as does the camera, floating to the next interaction. There’s no soundtrack to speak of, only the occasional background music from a radio or club band, but nothing more. The camera is the star of Slacker, although it took me years to realize it.

The film opens with a young man (director Linklater himself) arriving in Austin and launching into a chain of free-form ruminations while a disinterested taxi driver takes him into town. The film closes with a raucous group of friends driving a convertible up the mountains outside of town and, in a final pique, throwing the camera—the star of the movie—down a cliff. In between, the camera moves between perhaps fifty different vignettes, eavesdropping on everything from the inane and mundane to the fantastical and bizarre.

Director Richard Linklater. (Photo by K.E.B.)

Director Richard Linklater. (Photo by K.E.B.)

Impossibly, each of these moments is wonderful in its own right. Some of the episodes reach father than the others. Everyone who’s watched the film remembers its most famous scene, the overly-familiar young woman (Teresa Taylor, drummer for the Butthole Surfers!) fencing a stolen jar containing Madonna’s pap smear, pubic hair and all. My personal favorite remains the inept burglar caught in the act in an elderly anarchist’s house, only to receive a gentle education on the history of anarchism in America. It’s the most complete and well-rounded episode in the film. It comes near the film’s midpoint, giving the audience a kind of narrative breather before the tour of Austin’s alt-underground bestiary continues.

Considering its unconventional narrative style, Slacker is refreshingly not self-conscious (or self-congratulatory) of its rule-breaking. (The opening with Linklater in the cab may be the only “meta” moment in the film.) For all the ground this self-financed film breaks, it’s comfortable and comforting viewing, the absolute opposite of the avant garde. That’s another reason Slacker sustains after twenty-five years. It’s hard to mock a film-school film and its no-name cast when it’s so relaxed in its own skin.

Any review or retrospective of Slacker is bound to name-drop “Generation X” and I won’t disappoint on that count. (After all, I’ve got some skin in the game.) Slacker is often called the definitive film of my generation. But when I think of the “great” movies of a generation—Easy Rider and The Big Chill for the Baby Boomers, The Social Network for the Millennials—I see aging, curling Polaroids losing their currency with each passing minute—movies of like-aged, like-minded, similarly-groomed people bellyaching they’ve not gotten their due. Slacker is not that film.

One observation critics sometimes make is that this is not truly a Generation X film because not every character is of that age. It’s true, but it’s also true the older non-Gen-X characters are treated differently than the rest. In films like Easy Rider and The Social Network, the older generation is treated with disdain and suspicion. In Slacker, those suspicions are reversed. An age-worn hitchhiker and the anarchist mentioned before are voices afforded the opportunity to air their wisdom to a welcome audience, while the specious logics of the younger characters are treated more as clever amusements. In the film’s final moments, an elderly man strolls down a street narrating into a tape recorder the quiet poetic wisdom of a long, full life—only to be interrupted by a young man, 20 or 21, driving a car with mounted loudspeakers, blaring into the microphone empty rage about guns and knives solving all political problems. It’s obvious where this film’s sympathies lie.

For the A.V. Club’s “New Cult Canon” review, Scott Tobias puts his finger on why Slacker is distinguished from other generation-defining movies:

It isn’t enough to think of Gen-Xers as merely jaded and sarcastic; indeed, there’s little of that attitude on display in Linklater’s film. But there is a sense of profound disconnection, a refusal by young people to participate in a system that will bring them no joy and wither their souls. As one character puts it, “Every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death.”

My personal introduction to Slacker was in 1992, not long after its release, watching the movie on VHS at a Saturday night pasta feed. Eight or nine of us were crowded into a duplex’s living room in San Luis Obispo, me and my college-aged friends, some I knew well, some I didn’t. In particular, the singer and rhythm guitarist of our band was there. (We were going to be big, but no one could understand what our music was doing.) We were feasting on plates of red-sauce spaghetti and hot garlic bread. One of the women had made her easy-bake Apple Brown Betty. Others brought red wine and six-packs of the local beer. Dinner and a movie, on the cheap.

We were young and about to grow old. The singer was engaged to marry one of women there, the Brown Betty baker who was a housemate of mine. I was becoming involved with another woman in the room, a second housemate of mine that I would go on to live with for thirteen years. There were most likely other sub-plots in that room I was unaware of.

We knew, collectively and subconsciously, we were about to be dropped on a high-speed conveyor belt and told to run as fast as we could to keep up. Some of the people in that room thought they could step out of the way and stay clear of the inevitable. The rest of us knew, it’s called “inevitable” for a reason. For us, “getting ahead” sounded an awful lot like “falling behind.” We were all resigned to what was coming, and resigned to it in our own ways.

That’s why Linklater’s cafe au lait Dostoevskys and conspiracy savants sustains twenty-five years later. The game for the viewer is not teasing apart thought-provoking insights or brilliant dissections of American culture. Most of the musings in Slacker are, in fact, well-adorned horseshit. The game is piecing together how reasonably-educated people would arrive at such philosophies—and everyone in this film has their own philosophy, make no mistake. There’s a postmodern dignity that comes with assembling a personal credo from piece-parts and staying true to it, no matter how whacked-out it is. And that’s what’s going on in this film, with zero irony and zero sarcasm.

Pre-Internet and pre-Seinfeld, Slacker might come across as a grungy sun-drenched film of a drearier, less-snarky age. I say Linklater offers blueprints for an examined life—not the examined life, but examples of them. This is an earnest film. With few exceptions, the characters in Slacker withhold judgment about each other. They give each other the benefit of the doubt. Even when it’s obvious one of them is babbling nonsense from out in the weeds—”We’ve been on the moon since the ’50s!”—the other characters give them their space. There’s a moment in the film where a character takes a swipe at Texas Libertarians, but it seems to me that Slacker‘s code of live-and-let-live stands not far off.

Most critics pick up on a line uttered late in the film: “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.” It’s often interpreted as the film announcing its own thesis statement (possibly the only other “meta” moment), but it’s worth taking a second look.

I don’t see a lot of disgust in Slacker. There’s a bit of it sprinkled around: the roustabout hitchhiker (“I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to do it”), a mouthy “anti-artist” berating a hipster at two in the morning, an enraged polemicist in an old-fashioned electioneering sound truck. That may be about it in the disgust department, though.

Slacker 2011, a "re-imagining" produced by the Austin Film Society for the 20th anniversary of the original film.

Slacker 2011, a “re-imagining” produced by the Austin Film Society for the 20th anniversary of the original film.

Listening to Linklater’s director’s commentary (recorded for Slacker‘s 20th anniversary), I gather he’s not terribly interested in elevating emotions like disgust, rage, vengeance, or hatred. So many of his anecdotes about Slacker are soft recollections of easier times: a buddy who came through with film equipment, good times working in a T-shirt shop, a girlfriend-actor he’s still friends with, that sort of thing. Slacker is a compendium of this manner of life. Sleeping on couches, trips to dusty used-books stores, the quest for the best burrito in town: It’s not a universal way of life, but it’s a way of life mimeographed and stapled to telephone poles all across America. Any smallish city or town with a college or arts school has this scene. Slacker is its Platonic ideal.

Returning to that immortal line—”Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy”—I don’t even think there’s much apathy in the film, at least in its purest destructive form. Shrugging off others’ pet theories or forgoing a work ethic is not apathy. Questioning whether ex-convicts should be denied the right to vote or wondering if the media used Smurfs to inculcate America’s youth—both voiced in the film—doesn’t strike me as apathetic either.

Withdrawal is the common filament of Slacker, the third rail powering the camera’s dolly as it journeys through Austin. The closest Slacker gets to engagement is a gung-ho “cultural terrorist” selling T-shirts on the street. Slacker‘s characters don’t merely question, they question the act of questioning.

What did E. M. Forster write in Howard’s End? “Only connect”? Slacker is “only connect” put to film.

Twenty-five years on, I’ve lost touch with all the folks in that room in San Luis Obispo watching Slacker and drinking red wine. Over the years I intersected with a few of them, connecting briefly before moving on.

I’ll be bold and surmise that, back then, laughing and marveling over Linklater’s creation, none of us wanted to leave San Luis Obispo, or even that room. After leaving, we never wanted to return either. Perhaps we never truly left it behind.

I suppose that’s why I rewatch Slacker every few years, just as I reread certain books which have deeply affected me at points in my life. Rewatching Slacker is reconnecting with a past and making it present for a moment. It keeps alive within me a little bit of that necessary withdrawal.

Kung Pao Grantland

Bill Simmons

Bill Simmons

GrantlandFor the past few days there’s been an under-the-radar furor over the news that ESPN will shutter (and now has shuttered) Grantland, Bill Simmon’s unorthodox and motley digital magazine he started in 2011. A melange of sports writing and pop culture analysis, Grantland offered daily doses of baseball/football/basketball coverage (“The Triangle”), movie and television reviews, NBA trade predictions, Hollywood power-structure tell-alls, and straight-up unabashed fan writing of all manner of popular entertainment. The moment the Twittersphere kinda-sorta erupted with news of Grantland’s demise I immediately felt sullen. Some grown-up in ESPN’s accounting department had taken my lollipop away.

Excuse me while I make a poor but useful metaphor: Grantland was the digital equivalent of Chinese-American cuisine. Both offer a little of something for everyone, and the elements together on the plate taste like nothing else in the American palate. Starchy staples, tasty fried sports writing, as well as specialty items you can take or leave, the sweet-and-sour film review or the Kung Pao TV retrospective. Founder and editor-in-chief Bill Simmons’ columns? The fortune cookie.

Unsurprisingly, Grantland was heavy on sportswriting. Bill Simmons’ career as a Boston sportswriter and later with ESPN guaranteed any site he started would zero in on the hardcore day-in, day-out sports fan. But Simmons aimed higher than the lad-magazine sports coverage dominating the commercial Web today. He also avoided the purple athlete hagiographies Sports Illustrated‘s writers pen in the hopes of turning a feature article into a book. Instead, Simmons looked for thoughtful, side-angle takes on sports that avoided the breathless “you-are-there” prose and sports-radio head-bashing. Grantland offered college basketball coverage that would make any casual fan a maniac, unapologetic take-downs on the NFL concussion controversy, and a soulful piece on Don King at the end of a remarkable lifetime, a story that should’ve won a Pulitzer.

(Grantland’s sportswriting wasn’t pure platinum. Like the worst of the dailies’ sports columns, Grantland occasionally lapsed into poor satire, such as its fictional oral history of a real-life American League pennant game, or, worse, Roger Federer’s deviled eggs recipe, both of which told me that Grantland’s writers operated under deadlines like their print counterparts.)

If sports don’t float your boat, Grantland’s television and film writing was equally strong. These features weren’t “bolt-ons” designed to drive traffic to a sports-centric site, but an integral part of Grantland’s overall gestalt. (Now you see where I’m going with this Chinese food metaphor.) In fact, that might be the secret of Grantland’s success: it treated TV and film criticism with the same irreverent seriousness as great American sportswriting. Simmons recognized a sports-fan-like obsessiveness in the Mad Men bingeviewers and the art-house film fanatics. They take their pursuits solemnly and dive in deep to their pet loves, but not with the deadly sanctimoniousness of political junkies or finicky tastes of music fans. Grantland targeted today’s connoisseurs of popular narrative entertainment, people who watch the movie then watch it again with the director’s commentary.

Most of all, Grantland recognized it was possible be a fan of all these cultural wellsprings—Major League Baseball, Breaking Bad, Christopher Nolan—and smart enough to want to read deeper and broader into them all. Bill Simmons laid it on the line: great writing will attract eyeballs, and it will keep them coming back for more.

My appreciation for Grantland came last July when I swore Grantland was committing a bizarre form of suicide. The noose they chose to hang themselves with was “Rom Com Week,” five days of retrospective on the best and worst of Hollywood’s romantic comedies. How could a site for sports fans who think the NBA draft is nail-biting drama possibly want to read about movies that made you laugh as you cried?

Well, it worked. It even made me rethink the romantic comedy as a—fine, I’ll say it—art form. I devoured each daily transmission of “Rom Com Week” at my office desk over a brown bag lunch, always eager for the next day’s installment. The cherry to top it off was Bill Simmons’ wrap-up analysis, “Sports Movie or Not a Sports Movie?” He attacked what may be the most pressing question in popular culture that was never asked and never answered: Were movies like Bull Durham, Tin Cup, and The Replacements sports movies or romantic comedies? In an awe-inspiring and sweeping investigation, Grantland uncovered a massive underground river in American culture, the overlap between “guy” sports films and “gal” rom-coms, with Kevin Costner as the center peg holding it all together. If Simmons’ essay doesn’t rearrange your head, you’ve been living under a rock for the past three-plus decades.

That’s the fortune cookie, Bill Simmons sliding in at the last moment with surprising observations and a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the subject at hand. Hell, he almost got me to forgive Saturday Night Live for forty years of repetitive and spineless comedy—almost. That said, Grantland’s SNL retrospective adds up to some of the best writing ever on an American institution that somehow manages to delude itself (and a lot of other people) into thinking it’s still an anti-establishment rabble-rouser, even while wearing a tuxedo and hobnobbing with A-list celebrities.

Romantic comedies, SNL at 40, the real origins of Moneyball, The Terminator reconsidered, the future of James Bond, the Golden State Warriors’ performance shot-by-shot. Maybe someday the hole left by Grantland will be filled, but I doubt it.

Gawker, meet Sid Hudgens: media mogul, slimeball, genius

Myron Fass' Hush-Hush News

Myron Fass’ Hush-Hush News

James Ellroy’s brilliant novel L.A. Confidential introduces readers to Sid Hudgens, one of Ellroy’s most colorful and enduring characters. Publisher of Hush-Hush magazine (“off the record, on the Q.T. and very hush-hush”), Hudgens gleefully reports on the secret lives of drag queens and lesbians, dishes the dirt on the famous (Robert Mitchum’s “Big Dope Bust of 1948”), and outs hunky actors whenever the whiff of non-heterosexual possibilities are sniffed out by him and his camera lens.

While Gawker Media weathered the storm this week over its outing of a Condé Nast executive embroiled in blackmail, I found myself revisiting Ellroy’s Sid Hudgens and all that Hudgens represents. I’m enjoying the Gawker circus immensely, delighted by each day’s revelations (Gawker “in a total meltdown”, “editors resign over flap”, Gawker to be “20% nicer”). Now this is my kind of tabloid journalism!

And I’m not the only one. I’ve noticed a preponderance of the word “schadenfreude” in accounts of Gawker’s self-induced implosion. (I even coined a neologism for the phenomena: gawkenfreude.)

I admit, I’m not entirely elated with Gawker Media’s and CEO Nick Denton’s funky little mess. I’m a fan of io9, a Gawker Media venture that avoids the lurid and sensational. In their place, io9 emphasizes reliable, thoughtful pieces for the science and science-fiction crowd. It’s also one of the few mainstream media sites to treat ebooks and self-publishing with the dignity they deserve. io9’s writing is remarkably free of the snark that Gawker churns out like dollar-mart peanut butter. (I should mention that I’ve socialized with io9 editor-in-chief Charlie Jane Anders in the distant past.) But io9’s good work isn’t enough to stop me from gawking at the Gawker pile-up.

Confidential magazine, November 1955

Confidential magazine, November 1955

With all the schadenfreude over the train wreck that is Gawker Media, maybe it’s time to acknowledge the immense debt Nick Denton & Co. owe to the Sid Hudgenses of the bygone tabloid era, 1940s and onward.

James Ellroy’s creation is most likely an amalgamation of two historical figures, Myron Fass and Robert Harrison. Media impresario Myron Fass revived the Eisenhower era Hush-Hush News in the late 1960s. In addition, he published “up to fifty titles a month, many of them one-offs, covering any subject matter he thought would sell, from soft-core pornography to professional wrestling, UFOs to punk rock, horror films to firearm magazines.”

Robert Harrison published Confidential magazine in the 1950s, whose editorial style was “laden with elaborate, pun-inflected alliteration and allowed stories to suggest, rather than state, the existence of scandal.” Those pun-laden alliterations became Sid Hudgen’s calling card in both L.A. Confidential and later stories featuring him. (You can hear Hudgens’ pleased hiss as he says “sinnnn-sational.”) When Hudgens narrates a story in this alliterative fashion, Ellroy’s prose becomes a thick, near-unreadable Finnegan’s Wake of double entendres, word mangling, linguistic winks and nudges, and postwar film references.

Myron Fass represents the more lurid of the two—his love of the grotesque, bizarre, and outlandish comes through in his wild covers. Harrison’s Confidential was more conservative in both subject matter and politics, taking the pose of a moral crusader exposing those in power and delivering the truth to a deserving public.

Danny DeVito as Sid Hudgens, L.A. Confidential

Danny DeVito as Sid Hudgens, L.A. Confidential

Curtis Hanson’s film adaptation of L.A. Confidential did a damn fine job boiling Ellroy’s tangled ride and entwined characters down to a focused, seasoned narrative. Screenwriter Brian Hegeland developed brilliant scenes that establish complicated characters onscreen in moments. Here’s Sid Hudgens (impeccably played by Danny DeVito) explaining his vision of…the future:

Jack Vincennes: It’s felony possession of marijuana.
Sid Hudgens: Actually, it’s circulation 36,000 and climbing. There’s no telling where this will go. Radio, television. Once you whet the public’s appetite for the truth, the sky’s the limit.

Compare Sid’s ambitions to Nick Denton’s pseudo-manifesto of Gawker’s values:

“We put truths on the internet.” That has been the longstanding position of Gawker journalists. … It is not enough for [stories] simply to be true. They have to reveal something meaningful. They have to be true and interesting.

I won’t quibble with “interesting” except to point out that this is the word choice of a one-time journalist and editor.

“True,” however, is worth pondering. Nick Denton is not invoking the philosophical notion of truth as handed down to us from Aristotle, Sartre, Kant, and so forth. This is a schoolyard notion of truth, or rather, The Truth. A bottled, constrained substance, the prim and scolding schoolchild feels entitled and duty-bound to uncork The Truth and dump it out into the sandbox and onto the heads of their peers, damn the consequences—to others, of course, never him or herself. “True and interesting,” as airtight and ironclad a journalistic ethic as any, Sid Hudgens might say.

While Gawker‘s writers talk up the First Amendment, firewalls between business and journalism staff, and the purity of The Truth they seek to release, it remains that the core of Gawker‘s pulled story lies an attempt to out a man as gay. In Gawker‘s 1950s worldview, homosexuality remains an accusation to deny or confess to. Even when Gawker’s writers insist staying in the closet is a form homophobia, their devotion to exposing “true and interesting” homosexuality rings as hollow as Sid Hudgens’. Gawker and Hudgens see it as their personal duty to pull back the curtain on private lives whose personal choices—right or wrong—have zero impact on the public.

And Gawker has been relentless in their crusade of outing public figures (never mind the question of whether the Condé Nast executive is a public figure). Look no further than their perverse, sordid, multi-year quest not only to out James Franco as gay, but as a gay rapist—a charge they determined by counting the yea and nay votes in their readers’ comment section. Outing gay men (accurately or inaccurately) is the staple crop of tabloid journalism’s output and the raison d’être for its existence. In other words, Gawker is not the innovator it presents itself as. Gawker has an unsavory, weathered provenance that goes all the way back to the days of Myron Fass and Robert Harrison.

Tabloid journalism does not engage. It shames, it derides, it scorns, it scolds. It’s the clucked tongue put to print. It’s the transcription of knuckles rapped in delight. By refusing to engage in the substance of a story, Gawker‘s revered snarkiness is revealed as nothing more than Sid Hudgens’ pit-bull taste for lasciviousness, but more hipster and less hepcat.

Still, I can’t help but feel Sid Hudgens won. He foresaw the future with more clarity than Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov. From four-color tattler rags to Walter Winchell’s radio gossip to checkout line National Enquirer to prime time’s A Current Affair to the O.J. Simpson trial circus to Gawker Media’s empire—Sid Hudgens, Myron Fass, and Robert Harrison built the future one rumor at a time. Whet the public’s appetite for The Truth, boy-o, and the sky’s the limit.

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Up at The Tusk, “This Shit Ain’t Ever Going to Work”

Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People-10_1410The Tusk has posted a new piece of mine about the tortured history of my new novel Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People. A sample:

And how could I forget my friend’s father returning home one afternoon from work, tie loose and hair splayed, bedraggled from wrestling some top-secret problem? Most likely not a problem scientific in nature, but bureaucratic. Thirteen years of age or so, a computer geek-in-training (largely because I wanted to grow up and write video games, unaware that a prerequisite for writing video games is to have never grown up), I was fascinated with the engineering problems these nuclear scientists must have faced every day. Sitting cross-legged on the lime-green living room shag playing Axis & Allies (and losing badly), I asked how his latest project was proceeding.

He leaned down to my ear and whispered: “Jim, this shit ain’t ever going to work.” Then he went to the kitchen and cracked open a beer from the refrigerator. By “this shit” he meant the LLNL’s latest budget-busting project, the Strategic Defense Initiative, a la Star Wars, a system of laser-equipped satellites promised to protect our country from ICBM attack and end the Cold War. You know, that Cold War, the mad weapons race the laboratory at Livermore had enabled and fostered and contributed to over the prior thirty years.

Read the whole thing at The Tusk. And while you’re at it, read Nate Waggoner’s brilliant dissection of how authors’ are learning to burnish their own laurels in today’s world of social media and independent publishing, “On Self-Promotion”.

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North American Review: “Origins of The Obituarist”

A Concordance of One's Life by Jim Nelson

The North American Review blog has posted a piece I wrote for them, “Origins of The Obituarist”. In it I detail the inspiration and creative process I worked through to write my short story “The Obituarist”, which NAR accepted and published in their Summer/Fall 2009 issue. A sample from the original short story:

My editors and my fellow obituarists have a little list, The Nearly Departed we call it, celebrities and politicians and artists and authors whom we agree are not long for this world. The unlucky are crossed off the list the same day their obit hits the back pages of the Times. The unluckier are those added when that slot opens. There is no announcement, no press release of their addition. My subjects are not informed privately. We guard The Nearly Departed, not even speaking of it around lower staffers. Is it out of etiquette or some nobler purpose we do not make public our little deal pool? Or is the reason as crass and self-serving as the embarrassment of admitting we’re little more than vultures circling for the first moment we can unlock the work we’ve invested dearly in? Ah, there is one aspect to this game I am unsure of.

I interview their colleagues and relatives under a variety of pretenses. Ethically I’m bound to supply my name and the name of my publisher, but beyond that, ethics take on a certain…plasticity. When I say I need a quote for the Sunday supplement, which Sunday? Which supplement? And my name means little to anyone outside of the Times. Of the thousands of obituaries I’ve choreographed into print, not once have I enjoyed credit. It takes a peculiar modesty to pen the death notices of the famous and infamous. It takes even slimmer pride to gallop down to the newsstand and slap through the pages to locate the twelve column inches of your painfully sculpted prose. When someone particularly famous dies, there’s whole milk in my morning cappuccino.

There are others like me at the Times, but none with as much experience. I’ve written five thousand obits but my colleagues are developing thousands more as well. The Times is prepared for at least ten thousand celebrated lives to expire. Of the glitterati and politicos that fell within my sphere, only thirty-five hundred or so have expired. Those remaining fifteen hundred obituaries are on ice in The Freezer waiting for that special phone call from my editor. The liver transplant didn’t take. Or, Dropped dead on the back nine. Or, The pack-a-day finally caught up with him. Fifteen hundred unpublished obituaries is a sweet chunk of intellectual property, as the Times‘ retained lawyers say. My legacy.

Here’s what I wrote about this character and his odd profession for North American Review:

I wanted to know if this grim duty was a primary occupation or one-off work for idle journalists. I wondered if anyone would actually aspire to join the ranks of obituarists, or if junior journalists were lassoed into the role because more senior writers could take a pass on such bleak work. I did a bit of research, online and at the city library, and discovered that this particular field of journalism is remarkably underdocumented. Obituaries are a perverse and morbid obligation, one newspapers are obviously reluctant to discuss. In fiction voids can be filled in with imagination, like spackle covering up a crack in a wall, but with so little to work with I fretted I would muff the basic facts of my story’s subject matter.

A. O. Scott said “a great obituary is like a novel in miniature.” What would a writer learn after penning these miniature novels for thirty years? Compressing lives into column inches, never receiving a byline, not even being a full-fledged member of the newsroom, merely earning a check when someone famous died?

Read the whole thing here.

(Update: A follow-up on a NY Times story on obituarists published the same day as my NAR essay can be found here, “The Gray Lady dances with The Obituarist: ‘Obituaries for the Pre-dead'”.)

“The Obituarist” is available in my new collection of short stories, A Concordance of One’s Life, available as a Kindle e-book at Amazon (and coming soon to Kobo and Apple’s iBook store).