edited by Chris Calhoun
Citadel Press / Kensington Books
ISBN: 0806524685, $12.95, 192 pp.
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...