The Dead Beat

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Sunday, October 15, 2006
by Marilyn Johnson #29
Full title: The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries

I saw Marilyn Johnson read at Wordstock, and I liked her very much, but her book is even better! Before I get to what's inside, let's address the size and shape of this book. I don't know why, but the fact that it is sort of tall and skinny (5.25" x 9.25") made for an even more enjoyable read. I'm undoubtedly making too much of the physical pleasure of just holding this book, but I tell you -- publishers today are cheaping out on bindings and paper (don't get me started on the state of the trade paperback!), so when one is distinct, it deserves mention. Plus it sort of looks like a headstone, which is appropriate to the subject matter.

Here is a fact: we're all gonna die. Here's an opinion: we have a profoundly unhealthy and unbalanced attitude toward death and dying in this country. (also aging, the poor, sex, and the importance of art in society -- but that's not what this book is about so I'll leave it alone for now.) This book helps redress the balance.

Johnson tackles the obituary from many angles -- the obits themselves, the culture of obituary hounds, and the people who write them. I particularly like the look she takes at the differences between US obituaries and those published in the UK. Here's an excerpt discussing "the code." She's talking of Hugh Massingberd, "the master of the euphemism," who wrote for the UK paper the Daily Telegraph

This coded understatement is an art, and part of the pleasure of reading and writing obits. Massingberd spent his career at the Daily Telegraph refining that art. "We all know 'he didn't suffer fools gladly' translates as ' a complete bastard,'" he told a gathering of obituarists in Bath, England. Massingberd is a great elegant bear of a man, and in a self-penned mock obit claimed to possess "an appetite of such magnitude that friends counted him as three men at their table." He smacked his lips over his list as if it were a tower of profiteroles, then read it with lusty pleasure:

Gave colorful accounts of his exploits -- Liar!
No discernible enthusiasm for civil rights -- Nazi!
Powerful negotiator -- Bully!
Tireless raconteur -- Crashing bore!
Relished the cadence of the English language -- Old windbag!
Affable and hospitable at every hour -- Chronic alcoholic!
He was attached to his theories and sometimes urged them too strongly -- Religious fanatic!
Fun-loving and flirtatious -- Nymphomaniac!
An uncompromisingly direct ladies' man-- Flasher and rapist!

(end quote)

There is poignancy in this book as well, but predominantly a joy for stories, an enthusiasm for the small details that distinguish us one from another, and the impression that you don't honor the dead by whitewashing or neutralizing their lives.

The thing that's really stuck with me all these months (this is another one of those posts that has been staring at me from a list of Things To Do) is how a great obituary is not about death, but about how one LIVED. One of the things I took away from reading this is that I would like to have something more meaningful (or colorful -- it doesn't have to be both) than "she really knew her way around some keyboard shortcuts" in my obituary! I guess it's never too late to start my career in international intrigues, roguish adventures, making things from lint, or at the very least giving colorful accounts of my exploits in fun-loving flirtatiousness.
6 comments on "The Dead Beat"
  1. This is yet another book I will be putting on hold...I think I did catch her at the end of her reading, or did I hear the whole thing? It feels like a million years ago. I can't wait for the next Wordstock. So much fun, especially with you.

  2. Yeah, I think you missed the first part in pursuit of the free hummingbird book! She was right before Gore Vidal and I remember having to keep telling people that no, that seat was not available.

    Wordstock is going to be in the FALL next year! Cruel trickery!! Now what am I going to look forward to to get me through this miserable winter?

    (I am hating the rain already, and it's only been happening for three days.)

  3. Oh, please, please, no career in lint! I took so long to recover from a booth in a flea market of cute things made from women's hose (blk wht and colored--the hose, not the women) that I could not face the lint.

    As for the rain, might I suggest making up names for the different styles of OR rain, like the Eskimo words for snow?

  4. That sucks!!! I like Wordstock in April, not in the Fall!!! It is more of a Spring-timey sort of thing, methinks...oh well. I guess I should just hibernate until mid-February...that sounds like fun and I agree about the rain. I am so hating it. I don't like this dreary weather.

  5. Patty -- okay, okay! no lint. Do I need to clear the rest with you, or just crafting? (kidding!) My personal craft observation nadir was santas made from bleach bottles. I have nightmares of them still...

    I won't be naming the rain today because those names would just be compound swear words. Watch Deadwood, subtract any storyline, and that's what I think of the rain right now.

    BBD -- yeah, I don't know why they moved it, just that they did. I wonder if it has anything to do with publishing schedules or when authors are available. It's probably something much more prosaic, but when they don't let me know, I have to make things up!

  6. I think that the organizers just got lazy is all...but, on a lighter note, The Dead Beat is already in transit to the library for me so I am looking forward to that. Next time I will have to remember that hummingbird books should NOT be at the top of my list.


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