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TALKING WITH PORTER SHREVE / Are Obituaries Dead?

ONE TINY but significant literary phenomenon this season is a grouplet of

post-pubescent novelists who happen to be children of novelists. Take

Christopher Rice, age 22, whose first novel, "A Density of Souls," will be out

in August. As the joke goes, Chris isn't just a young novelist; he's also

famous in his own right, as the son of Anne Rice. Ditto for Molly Jong-Fast,

the 21-year-old daughter of Erica Jong and Jonathan Fast, whose debut novel,

"Normal Girl," came out last month. Porter Shreve, son of the novelist Susan

Richards Shreve, is another, more seasoned (33 years old) member of this

non-movement; his first novel, The Obituary Writer (Mariner, $12 paper) shows

him to be as talented a writer as any boot-strapping child of hog ranchers or

CPAs.

Twenty-two-year-old Gordie Hatch is the numbingly clueless narrator of

Shreve's novel. Fresh out of journalism school and gung-ho to make his mark,

Hatch is working the night shift at the St. Louis Independent, a feisty,

old-fashioned relic of the pre-Murdoch past of American newspapers. It turns

out that the young man's long-dead father himself belonged to this heroic era

of journalism; according to Gordie's mother, he played a brilliant role in it,

reporting on the scene from President Kennedy's assassination and breaking many

other big stories. Young Gordie wants to write the big headlines as well - the

year is 1989 and the Iron Curtain is disintegrating-but he's stuck doing

obituaries of local residents and occasional aged celebs like Bette Davis. It's

a radically boring life for Gordie, until one night he gets a call from Alicia

Whiting, the charming young widow of a local banker. She seduces the shy cub

reporter (not a difficult task) and moves in with him; soon she's giving up her

old interests and hobbies and glomming onto all of Gordie's; she even starts

wearing lensless tortoise-shell glasses and writing news stories. And then

things get even fishier. Suddenly Gordie not only has a front-page story, he's

in the middle of the story himself.

Shreve candidly acknowledges this novel's debt to film noir, but "The

Obituary Writer" isn't another tough-talking knock-off of Chandler and Cain. In

fact, Shreve's novel has a strong fairy-tale quality; it's a very old story

about a young man's entry into the adult world. The widow who takes him there

is an image of the world itself: capricious, seductive, unstable, shedding old

personalities the way Eastern Europe sloughed off Communist regimes. Surviving

this woman converts Gordie Hatch from guileless twerp to experienced adult, and

with this transformation comes some truly startling news (in the form of an

old obituary clipping) about his legendary father. At the novel's end it's

possible to imagine Gordie Hatch writing more than obituaries someday; he is

initiated as a man and as a writer.

"The Obituary Writer" is also its author's initiation into the role of

novelist. The ambition to write fiction was nothing new to Shreve; after

graduating (barely) from the University of Missouri journalism school, he sat

down to create his first masterpiece - but found he didn't have any ideas of

how or what to write. The next six years were spent working nights at the

Washington Post as an editorial assistant and rewrite man, his days spent

reading bales and bales of novels, mainlining the literary education he never

got in college. A few years later and Shreve was at the University of

Michigan's MFA program being coached by Lorrie Moore and Charles Baxter, a

two-year program that Shreve says served him well. "Lorrie always said that an

MFA program is basically a cafe: people sitting around reading each other's

work, nibbling Danish and criticizing it." Shreve defends the whole MFA system

against its critics who have charged it (particularly the University of Iowa's

famous writing workshop) with extruding identically shaped short stories.

"Maybe there was a time when you could talk about 'the workshop story,' but

look at Edwidge Danticat, Ethan Canin and Junot Diaz-all went through MFA

programs, and they write in wildly different styles."

After finishing his MFA in 1998, Shreve stayed on at the university to

teach undergraduate writing courses, the kind of loose academic affiliation

that so many novelists are choosing over more traditional day jobs like

publishing or - gulp - journalism. "I came to writing fiction by being a

failure as a journalist," says Shreve. "There are certain restraints in writing

the truth; it comes more naturally to me writing the fiction of a lie." Shreve

is already at work on novel No. 2, a story about diplomats stranded in

Washington once their country ceases to exist after World War II.

We discuss the challenge of writing about D.C., a cosmopolitan locale with

no sense of place; of setting a novel in St. Louis, a city that is grossly

under-novelized compared to such standard backdrops as New York and L.A. We

also talk about the lackluster condition of American obituary writing. True,

The New York Times has made a visible effort to breathe some life into its

death section. But for most papers, the obits are nothing but career

information; they read like post-mortem resumes. Because of this obsessive

focus on professional achievements, 85 percent of all obituaries are of men.

How different it is at London's Daily Telegraph, whose death blotter includes

tangy sentences like "Reginald Bunthorne QC was also a nightmare drunk." Or "At

twilight the deceased could often be seen on Soho streetcorners getting in

screaming fistfights with rent-boys whom he had underpaid." Shreve, whose

publicity tour included a reading at an obituary writers' conference in Dallas,

reports that what the gathering lacked in attendance, its 50-or-so writers

more than made up for in intensity and fervid enthusiasm. Yes, there is hope

yet for the American obituary.

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