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
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
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