Monday, December 21, 2009

To Those Who Are Gone, But Whose Words Remain

As is customary around this time of year, let's take a post and say a fond literary farewell to these brilliant writers we lost in 2009.

1) John Updike -- "Shut up, Updike," grunts Krusty the Klown in a 2000 Simpsons episode. Cartoon Updike is giggling at Krusty's "misfortune" at being reunited with his long-lost daughter. Rare is the literary novelist with such mainstream crossover appeal, but Updike was as popular as he was ubiquitous. A memoirist, critic, prolific novelist and short story writer, and literary feuder, he was as close to a literary celebrity as our reality-show soaked culture will allow. Updike is probably best know for his quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels, the first two of which (Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux) are the only two Updike novels I've actually read. I did enjoy them, though, and have promised myself to one day soon finish the Rabbit series. Updike died of lung cancer on January 27. He was 76 years old.

2) Frank McCourt -- I feel a little guilty that McCourt's death was the motivation I finally needed to read his wonderfully brilliant memoir Angela's Ashes. His sobering tale of his impoverished Irish childhood, complete with alcoholic father, stunned critics and book clubs alike when it was published in 1996. It's a sad book, indeed, but infused with humor and Irish wit, as well. I loved it! He published a sequel to Angela's Ashes titled 'Tis about his young manhood in NYC, and another memoir about his experiences teaching in NYC public schools titled Teacher Man. He died July 19 of  melanoma with meningeal complications. He was 78 years old.

3) Jim Carroll -- Most folks are more familiar with Carroll's famous work The Basketball Diaries because of Leonardo DiCaprio's role as Carroll in the movie version of the book. But the book is fantastic -- it's a coming of age tale that reads like a much racier version of The Catcher in the Rye. Carroll's autobiography chronicles his descent into drug addiction on the streets of NYC in the mid '60s. I read the book for a literature survey class in college and have been slightly haunted by it ever since. It's terrifying. Carroll, who also wrote poetry and composed music, died September 11 of a heart attack. He was 60 years old.

4) E. Lynn Harris -- Frankly, I'm not real familiar with Harris's work, but judging from the news stories about him after he died, he had a small but very loyal following, especially in the gay community. His novels depicted black men struggling to come to terms with their closeted homosexuality. He published 15 books, including novels, short story collections and memoirs. He died June 20 of heart disease. He was 54 years old.

5) Dominick Dunne -- Dunne is another writer I haven't read. He was actually a novelist, movie producer, TV personality, investigative reporter and writer for Vanity Fair. His novels were generally centered on real-world crimes and punishments. He died August 26 of bladder cancer. He was 83 years old.

What are your reactions to any of these brilliant writers? Has their deaths changed your level of appreciation for their work? 


  1. Greg, Angela's Ashes is the only book I own in the audio version. McCourt narrates it and makes the tragedy bearable with his engaging voice. There is nothing like a good Irish novel as told by an Irishman. I highly recommend trying the audio book.

  2. The only one I've read is Frank McCourt. I was quite sad when he passed--just reading Angela's Ashes left me feeling almost like I knew him.

  3. i've only read angela's ashes and is probably the only autobiography i've read that i didn't think was self-serving. i read it when it came out and i was 17 and i still think about it. now that i've had my baby i thought about what if he had to drink water from a bottle instead of milk and it breaks my heart, makes the tragedy so much more real. i'm sad to know that frank mccourt has died :-(

  4. One of the best book signings I worked at was the one for Frank McCourt's Tis. He was charmingly honest,telling a story about how some of the indie book people got annoyed with him about doing a credit card ad connected to Barnes and Noble. "We made you!" is what they kept telling him and his response was "No,my mother and father made me." Not sure how some of my co-workers took that:)!

    He did sign my copy of Tis for me and I was so overwhelmed to be in his presence. I still have Teacher Man to read,but it's good to have something to look forward to.

  5. Great idea for a post - I read Angela's Ashes some years ago and liked it. I particularly remember the account of his first communion, a hilarious account in what is otherwise a somber memoir.

  6. @Christy - YES! That was my favorite part of the book, too. Thanks for the comment.

  7. @lady t - Must've been wonderful to meet him in person. He seemed like the sweetest old man in the world - loved your anecdote! Thanks for the comment!

  8. Frank McCourt was a favorite author of mine and I loved every one of his books. And even though the subject matter was so tragically sad, he was still able to tell the stories with his own style of wit and humor and always, hope.