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The Obituary Writer Paperback – June 7, 2000

33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

In his delicate and hilarious first novel, Porter Shreve paints a fast-moving tale about the grungy, romantic allure of newspaper work and the muddled conspiracy of nature and nurture in a young man's maturation. The Obituary Writer's narrator, Gordie Hatch, has papers in his blood: his late father was a crackerjack reporter, his mother a journalism-school secretary. His environment reeks of his avocation, too, from the bundled newspapers in his garage to his comforter, which bears old headlines like TITANIC SINKS, SACCO AND VANZETTI GUILTY, and LINDBERGH BABY KIDNAPPED. By age 8, Gordie is fully ready to grab the newspaperman's baton, or, more bluntly, to get a paper route. ("I grew up with a heightened sense of my own importance, which my mother encouraged," he says. Not least because she seems to have delivered far more papers than he.) In 1989, when he moves straight from J School into an entry-level position at the hallowed St. Louis Independent, Gordie experiences an eternal, embryonic sense of belonging within its perfectly stereotypical nerve center, one that might have housed his father.

Sometimes I'd swear I could sense him looking out through my eyes, a young reporter waiting for the flare in the sky that points to the great discovery. I'd stop at the rackety wire machines under the mural of Remington's Pony Express to scroll through the overnight news, then pick up a late edition from the stacks before taking the long, slow route to my desk.
But Gordie knows he can't afford to move slowly. His beat, the obituary desk, is either a stepping stone for the gifted or a place to park damaged has-beens. When he makes three crucial judgment errors in succession, he is suddenly ensnared by a Southern femme fatale--who lures him into an exquisitely drawn world of highly un-newsworthy bank clerks, dog shows, and bumbling small-town artistes. A far cry from the collapse of European communism, which his luckier colleagues get to cover. Though the final third of The Obituary Writer veers into formulaic suspense-novel territory at times, Gordie always remains engagingly self-aware and the novel's denouement is well worth a bit of tough sledding. Will our hero realign himself with his destined path? How strong is fate, exactly? We cannot say, Gentle Reader. You must uncork this fine, funny novel for yourself. --Jean Lenihan

From Publishers Weekly

Balancing lies and reality is a complex pursuit in Shreve's first novel, a poignant coming-of-age story centering on an aspiring journalist, Gordon Hatch, eager to live up to the standard set by his late father, a renowned reporter who covered John F. Kennedy's assassination and its aftermath. Gordie, 22, is presently a lowly obituary writer, a job he takes seriously, preparing a file of "advancers," obituaries of elderly famous people. He gets a phone call, which might be his first scoop and lucky break, from Alicia Whiting, a young widow, who pulls Gordie into the heart of her own pathological identity crisis. While trying to hide the truth of his humble job at the St. Louis Independent from his mother, who constantly compares his career to that of his father, and from Alicia, who quickly becomes his lover, Gordie weaves a web of lies nearly impossible to escape. But Gordie's web is nowhere near as complex as Alicia's, and as he faces some shocking truths about his lover, and about his parents, Gordie has to reevaluate the importance of truth itself. Although the story raises compelling questions about honesty and friendship, Gordie's epiphanies lack power, often falling flat: when Gordie finally appreciates the loyalty and support of his mother and his former girlfriend, he says, "It dawned on me that my mother and Thea were good, that they had wanted to see me on my birthday." Lucidly demonstrating the widening gulf between Gordie and those who love him, Shreve then offers disappointingly little to bridge it, particularly since the lies and betrayals exposed are devastating, though the ultimate surprise, the lynchpin of the plot, lacks credibility. Yet unexpected twists, the deft buildup of suspense and a clever premise sustain the momentum. Agent, Joe Regal. Author tour. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; First Edition edition (June 7, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395981328
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395981320
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.3 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,867,108 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Porter Shreve grew up in Washington, DC, and has lived in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, Missouri, England, Israel, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, North Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, and California. For several years in his twenties he worked on the night city desk at the Washington Post, and to gear himself up for the long haul of writing books, he rode a bike from Washington State to Massachusetts.

His first novel, The Obituary Writer (2000), was a New York Times Notable Book; his second and third, Drives Like a Dream (2005) and When the White House Was Ours (2008), were Chicago Tribune Books of the Year; and his fourth, The End of the Book (2014), was a San Francisco Chronicle Book of the Year. He has coedited six anthologies and published fiction, nonfiction, Op-Eds and book reviews in many journals, magazines and newspapers, including Witness, Northwest Review, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

He has been a guest on NPR's Morning Edition and the Diane Rehm Show, among other programs, and he teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco and the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Pacific University in Oregon. He lives with his wife, writer Bich Minh Nguyen, and their two children in the Bay Area.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Nana Annie on July 12, 2000
Format: Paperback
...while looking at books in a local bookstore, I had thumbed through this one and actually read the ending, then planned to put it back...good writing, but nothing I wanted to read.
But I forgot to put it back, as I stacked up books and there it was when I got home. I decided to read it anyway, even knowing the ending, and find that I'm glad I did.
Very well-written, with a clever, poignant plot, this is a story that will stick with you. The narrator is Gordie, a young writer who wants to achieve the same fast success his mother reminds him (constantly) that his deceased father managed to find.
It's hard to say what needs to be said about this very good book without giving things away.
Gordie starts at the bottom, as an obit writer, low-end in the newspaper world - under the supervision of an aging, failed writer and editors who stab at Gordie's eager ego every time he attempts to take short cuts to success.
His lies tangle with the lies of others, his pride encourages him to inflate himself and blinds him from the truths. His inexperience couples with his wish to succeed; he seduces himself into believing what he wants to believe (aided by Alicia, a young and recent widow who has ego needs of her own).
Inevitably, Gordie finds himself both caught in, and part of the cause of, a tragedy.
(Note: what a previous reviewer's comments mean -- about LBJ, cowboy songs and Vietnam -- is a mystery to me, for none of those things are in this book)
This story is one that is not just good to read, but causes you to reflect for a long time after finishing.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 23, 2000
Format: Paperback
Other reader reviews here say stuff like "quick easy read" or "good for a vacation." What's up with that? Anyone who thinks The Obituary Writer is a book you sit down and read once and that's it, is not reading so well. Sometimes reading takes a little work, especially when it comes to restraint and subtlety. (But then, I don't believe that readers should be lazy.)
Here's a thought: you don't have to write a spew-all non-edited-Zadie Smith type-Rushdie-knockoff to have a full and deep book.
I read The Obituary Writer a couple of months ago and it's still in my mind, especially Gordie Hatch the main character and also that ending! (Hey, a couple people gave away the ending in their reader reviews. That's not cool!!) In an intriguing way, the smoothness of this book is a challenge because it's deceptive. Because the events and characters sure are not quick/easy to read/ smooth.
I think this book deserves some major props!
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 16, 2000
Format: Paperback
I can't imagine what the Los Angeles reviewer was talking about, though it's nice to see that at least one person reads in that city. Clearly s/he missed the point here (a case of too much sunshine, apparently) -- The Obituary Writer is a beautifully spare and understated book about a naive young narrator's emergence into the world. Because Porter Shreve does not overburden his novel with florid language (it's written in a taut prose appropriate to the journalistic milieu) and because the author does not hammer his reader over the head with a Cliffs Notes guide to exactly what s/he is supposed to be gleaning from the book paragraph by paragraph, page by page, a lazy reader can easily miss the subtlely of this excellent novel.
I don't tend to sound off in free-for-all forums such as this (democracy has its downsides -- see George Bush's lead in the polls) -- but I clicked on to this page to order The Obituary Writer for a friend -- and when I saw that brief, dismissive, two star review from L.A. -- I couldn't help myself.
Anyway, read this book!
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Chad Spivak on September 19, 2000
Format: Paperback
Did Alicia do it? That's the question that will be haunting me for a while. The Obituary Writer left me up in the air, and in all honesty, that's the only way this book should have left me. The ending is truly remarkable.
Gordie Hatch is a young obituary writer for a newspaper. He seems to be stuck at his position, and his father being an ace reporter who covered the JFK assasination always seems to be looming in the background. One day, Alicia Whiting calls after her husband's death, claiming that there is a good feature story in the making. Gordie is thrown into Alicia's life, and the twists and turns are plentiful from there.
What I liked most is the several different storylines within the one main plot. The substories are all interesting and they are all tied in quite nicely at the end. There were several points in the book where I thought that I knew what was going to happen next, but the novel never seemed to go the way I was thinking.
Overall this was a really quick read with a very subtle language peppered with humor quite well. I sincerely recommend this book for the mere fact that Gordie Hatch is definately one of the most interesting characters you will read about in a long time. This book will not disappoint.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Floor Vandewalle on March 21, 2001
Format: Paperback
I'm from Belgium, 18 years old and had bought this book for an oral examination in my Englisch classes. I'm sure this little review will contain many linguistic faults, so I hope they don't bother you. I have bougt this book when I had read a review in one of our standard high quality newspapers "De Morgen". That review was very grateful to this book, it considered it as "highly recommended". During the reading I found out Porter Shreve doesn't handle a difficult English. My knowledge of the Englisch language is at a primary level, but I could read it without the use of a dictionary. The Obituary Writer certainly is a very good book. I read many books - normaly in Dutch, my native language - and so I have to say that it isn't really my favourite. It's a good book, with many pleasant passages and an intelligent plot that you'll keep you a while busy, but I have read many much better books than that. Maybe it is to blame to the language barrier... However, I enjoyed reading it and have to confess that I hardly couldn't stop reading. A very good book, but I don't think it will be a bestseller...
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