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A Young Obit Writer Aching for Action

BOOK REVIEW

THE OBITUARY WRITER, by Porter Shreve. Mariner, 216 pp., $12 paper.

'MY FATHER, who died when I was five, had a reputation as a great

newspaperman. I never doubted that I would be one too. 'It's a matter of

destiny,' my mother would say to me with her usual drama. I believed her, and

that's where the trouble began."

So begins Porter Shreve's fast-paced, deftly observed first novel, "The

Obituary Writer." It's a work that glides along so smoothly and unpredictably

that you nearly forget that the author is not only a fine storyteller but a

shrewd psychologist. In this tale of misperception and self-delusion, vices and

weaknesses are what keep the human tragicomedy rolling.

Shreve's protagonist, Gordie Hatch, is a little too naive to understand

what makes people tick. Just 21, he's in his first job at the St. Louis

Independent, clearly modeled on the tradition-rich, Pulitzer-founded St. Louis

Post-Dispatch.

As an obituary writer, Gordie doesn't have much responsibility. The

stories, after all, come to him. This is an assignment suitable for a rookie,

but he's ambitious for more demanding ones. The time is 1988, when Communist

regimes in Eastern Europe seem to be toppling daily. Like Charlie Hatch, who

parlayed his crack reporting of President Kennedy's assassination into a star

career at the Chicago Tribune, his son aches to be where the action is.

Shreve sets up four very different women as unwitting agents of Gordie's

coming-of-age. First and most crucial is his mother, who has raised her only

child with the notion that he will naturally inherit her late husband's mantle

of greatness. Gordie's boyhood in Columbia, Mo., moved in lockstep from

delivering newspapers to collecting and studying them (the garage became an

overstuffed archive) to learning the craft at one of the nation's best training

grounds, the University of Missouri.

Also in Gordie's background is Thea Pierson, born Thuy Linh in Vietnam to a

Vietnamese mother and an American GI. Reunited with her father after her

mother's death, Thea grew up in Columbia and became a close pal of Gordie's

during high school. Just as his affections were growing ever warmer, though,

she seemed to have found another boyfriend. The sensitive Gordie abruptly cut

her off and hasn't been in touch since. But now his mother, who believes they

are meant to be a couple, informs him that Thea has moved to St. Louis and is

eager to see him again.

Meanwhile, Gordie is assigned to write an obituary of Arthur Whiting, an

apparently nondescript bank loan officer. Soon enough, Whiting's widow, Alicia,

pushes herself into his life, demanding that Arthur's achievements require a

fuller accounting than a few routine paragraphs. After all, Arthur had trained

a prizewinning Irish wolfhound that triumphed at the Westminster Kennel Club

Show in New York.

Not merely pushy, Alicia Whiting is a 30-something mystery woman of charm

and guile. She becomes an irresistible force in the young reporter's life. She

insists that Gordie attend Arthur's funeral and the gala evening when a

portrait of Arthur's pride and joy is unveiled at the St. Louis Dog Museum. He

not only consents but finds himself swiftly falling under her spell and into

her bed.

In contrast to Alicia's bewildering persona-part temptress, part space

cadet-Arthur's sister, Margaret, comes off as a blunt, no-nonsense type. She

and her beloved brother had shared his house until Alicia arrived on the scene

and forced her out. Now she's appalled by Alicia's rush to divest her life of

all memory of Arthur. Alicia, she warns Gordie, "tells lies of convenience."

Pushed and pulled by manipulative mother, would-be sweetheart, scheming

widow and sharp-tongued Cassandra, Gordie is a mess. "Everyone's got a role to

play in this life," an editor advises him, "and if you stick to your role,

it'll all work out." Trouble is, he's not sure what that role is.

It turns out that Gordie's mother has pointed him in the right direction

indeed. His journalistic instincts-allied, oddly enough, to his innate

jealousy-will save him in the end.

The role of a reporter is to seek the truth. The role of the obituary

writer is to discern the patterns in a life. The role of a jealous lover is to

snoop where he doesn't belong. Of this sprightly combination, Shreve makes a

suspenseful, insightful story.

The deeper Gordie probes, the more ghoulishly ethereal Alicia becomes. She

is at once multishaped and shapeless, ruthless and fragile. The truths Gordie

eventually discovers are hardly comforting, but they do deepen his

understanding of life's complexities. Shreve's rich juxtaposition of Gordie's

innocence and Alicia's boundaryless, ever-shifting self is a substantial

achievement.

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