January 19, 2013

52 McGs: The best obituaries of Robert McG. Thomas Jr.

In writing the obituary of a weather expert, he wrote that there was "no well-established meteorological career path to follow." The same might be said about writing obituaries.

But if there is a path to follow, it may be the one taken by Robert McG. Thomas Jr.: equal parts police beat, society news, and sports reporter and, perhaps most importantly a veteran rewrite man.

His best obits make up, "52 McGs.," the first book I've finished reading in 2013.

This week, like every other week, I've had obituaries on my mind, which set the backdrop for a climactic Saturday morning plowing through the back half of this collection. I'd been thinking about the Margalit Fox obituary for Dear Abby, and also the scrips and scraps I've turned up in my newspaper, including one man whose obit included his nickname: "Possum."

But the craft of Thomas's writing, and his deadpan delivery, may have no match. Obviously, I recommend the book, and here are a few favorite passages:

Mary Bancroft, spy
If Mary Bancroft had not existed, a hack novelist would surely have invented her, or tried.
 Anton Rosenberg, a hipster ideal
... the Greenwich Village hipster ideal of 1950's cool to such a laid-back degree and with such determined detachment that he never amounted to much of anything...
 Toots Barger, queen of the game duckpins
... leading to have duckpins named the Maryland state sport. The campaign failed, perhaps because legislators felt duckpins was just too odd to be the state sport, especially when Maryland already had an official sport: jousting.
Marshall Berger, linguist
A specialist in dialect geography, or dialectology, as it is known in linguistics, he was a dialectologist's dialectologist, a man with such a keen ear for the subtle variations of speech patterns that after listening for a few moments he could often tell a speaker's ethnic background, the neighborhood where he had grown up and his level of education.
Minnesota Fats, pool hustler
He certainly looked like a Minnesota Fats, or at least some Fats. At 5 feet and 10 inches, Mr. Wanderone had weighed as much as 300 pounds. ... Curiously, after he became Minnesota Fats, his new persona led to an actual job, something he had studiously avoided.
Wikipedia: Robert McG. Thomas Jr.

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