The Obituary Writer by Porter Shreve is in a word: Quirky. Gordon Hatch is the son of a supposedly famous newspaper reporter who had bylines on tons of articles following the Kennedy assassination. However, Charlie Hatch died when Gordon when just a young boy, so everything he knows about his father comes directly from his mother. After hearing so many wonderful things, it’s only natural for a son to dream about picking up where his father left off.
A year out of college, Gordon begins his quest by writing obituaries for a St. Louis newspaper. He is certain his inherited journalistic instincts will kick in and lead him to a story that will make him famous just like his father. Until then, he figures he’ll get his feet wet writing about the recently deceased.
Things start to get interesting when a woman named Alicia calls him repeatedly to write a feature about her dead husband. The problem is her husband is no one special. He’s just an ordinary guy who lead an average life. Still, Gordon’s “instinct” buzzes and he decides to follow the story. As he digs into the details, not only does he find an intriguing story, but he also falls in love with Alicia. Up to this point, Gordon seems to be a well-adjusted and normal guy, but once he starts pursuing this woman all his insecurities and faults come to light. For lack of a better description, he’s a little nutty.
While already a compelling read, Shreve does a fantastic job of infusing history into the storyline. The Revolutions of 1989 serve as a backdrop as a well as an interesting reflection of Gordon’s life. As major stories unfold, he misses one opportunity after another to make a name for himself in journalism. The events of 1989 literally redefined Eastern Europe and changed the course of the Cold War, yet Gordon, insecure in his abilities fails to follow the story and create headlines. Just as Eastern Europe collapses, so does he.
While his state of mind can be a little unnerving, that which leads him to his downfall is somewhat sympathetic. Gordon is a man so driven by what he believes is his destiny he never stops to wonder if it’s what he really wants. In that respect, the obituary writer is just as dead as the people he writes about.