THE BALTIMORE BOOK OF THE DEAD, by Marion Winik. Counterpoint, 138 pp., $18.95.
You could say that death is having a literary moment. Paul Kalanithis’s "When Breath Becomes Air" and Nina Riggs’ "The Bright Hour" recently put us in the driver’s seat as the authors hurtled toward their respective deaths, no turning back, cut to black.
Marion Winik, in "The Baltimore Book of the Dead," is instead in the passenger seat. Or rather, in the passenger seat again, having previously offered portraits of the departed in "The Glen Rock Book of the Dead." This time, she tells the stories of 60-plus people (and one dog and one goldfish) she has for the most part loved, all of whom she has lost.
Spending time with dead people might make you wonder: Do I want to take this trip? You do, when Winik (a frequent Newsday contributor) is telling the stories, two-page hits that read like flash nonfiction, highlight reels of what these people have meant to her, and sometimes to American culture, over the past 60 years.
Because of course Winik is also here, the book as much a memoir as a commemoration — how can it not be? With affection and candor, she invites you on a tour of her graveyard, stopping at each headstone and recounting just a little about, say, “The Southern Gentleman — died 2012,” who, shortly before his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease, took in a live production of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and remarked to Winik, “Some people should really keep their clothes on in public.” Or the dreamy Russian history professor of “My Advisor — died 2017”; after the memorial service, “his wife and kids took me home with them rather than let me wander drunkenly into the night looking for my hotel. A glass of milk in the downstairs kitchen for the perennial crushed-out student, the very last one.”
Winik’s voice is strong and clear, as if she has been called to sing these paeans and she will do it, she’s honored to do it, but she’s going to do it her way, with elation and sadness. She tells of shared needles and school shootings and the memory of seeing Prince (“The Artist — died 2016”) perform for the last time. She has paid $1,000 for herself and her daughter to sit in the third row, and Winik is “bent over, sobbing," she writes. "Mom, said my daughter. Watch the show.”
Winik watches the show, the wretched deaths, the expected ones, the ones that cut so deep all she can do is spark these people alive for another moment. And while she can be funny and self-deprecating (see “The Warrior Poetess — died 2010”), she can also bring you back-to-back stories (“The Young Hercules — died 2015” and “The Neatnik — died 2013”) that leave you crying on an airplane. (Though if you are fortunate, as I was, the guy sitting next to you will be watching the Mr. Rogers movie, "Won’t You Be My Neighbor?," and thus busy weeping himself.)
Winik tells us in the introduction that, reading an early draft of the book aloud at a party, one guest said, “I don’t want to hear this depressing stuff. She jumped up with her hand over her mouth and fled to her room.”
Which is the guest’s loss. Death is always in season, and it takes someone of Winik’s good humor and willingness to say, in essence, see that big door there? The one we are all going to walk through? Let’s just take a little look now, and know you will be remembered, that you are loved.