Friday, November 29, 2013

(22) Literary: THE OBITUIST

TITLE: The Obituist
GENRE: Literary

Peter “Mac” Macris is mostly suicidal. He’s returned home to Ohio and already purchased a gun when he inadvertently confuses the issue by finding hope and human connections. Mac becomes the obituist, a man who writes personalized obituaries for the dead and dying.

Alice died in the back seat 10 miles West of the last exit to Allentown. Just one last sharp ragged raspy breath that went in and then leaked out slowly and wasn’t followed by another.

Her voice choked with phlegm, Becky announced the passing. Two false starts and a long throat-clearing before she could speak. Mac already knew what she was going to say. Lesser parts of him raged against the inevitable: “She ain’t breathing, Mac.”

With Becky’s mastered words thick and crackling through her throat, the larger part of him settled in. Relief overwhelmed grief. Mac looked into the rearview. The interior of the car was grim and black. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah. It’s been a minute.” The grief moistened her voice. She sounded briefly beautiful and young.

“Should I stop?”

She didn’t answer. He heard her lighter flick. Whiffs of cigarette smoke tickled his nose and he tightened his grip on the wheel. They should not smoke with Alice in the car.

He deflated. It didn’t matter anymore.

He reached into his pocket for one of his own.

When she answered his question, it was a whisper: “No. I don’t think so.”

He nodded. Slowed the car slightly. Alice was done.

He prayed to wherever Alice had gone and wiped his eyes with his sleeves. The lights of oncoming traffic were haloed and gauzy. It made it hard to tell what was where.

Another wisp of the fog cat-footed across his mind.


  1. Oh, my stars and garters! There's a Carl Sandburg reference in the last sentence! Fog is CAT-FOOTING.

    You had me at "hello." This is the kind of attention to detail that can separate consciously literary, and totally readable and enjoyable, fiction from fiction that strives to be literary through too much verbiage.

    Well done!

  2. Love this entry a lot. I mean, I was already hooked by the idea of an obituist, and then the excerpt lived up to the premise. There are some lovely moments of language here, my favorite being: The grief moistened her voice. She sounded briefly beautiful and young.

    Great job and super super good luck.

  3. “Haloed and gauzy headlights.” Oh my. I’m so impressed by this entry. “He heard her lighter flick.” “Fog cat-footed across his mind.” “The ragged raspy breath … that leaked out.” Quotable stuff!

    This is really wonderful writing. I really really like it and would definitely read on.

    I really appreciate being told where we are immediately (Allentown) and in a car, and driving with a dying woman and her friend. This is a vivid, touching moment and a fantastic way to open a novel and bring the reader right in, vest the reader, make me (all of us!) care. I love this.

    The only thing I would change, I think, is making a complete sentence out of “He nodded. Slowed the car slightly.” I’m not a stickler for complete sentences, but not having one here doesn’t seem to further anything. I think “nodded, slowed the car slightly” would work just as well. That’s tiny.

    My only confusion stems from the logline—his role as an ‘obituist,’ a term I’d never heard but it’s certainly understandable. But if he’s writing obituaries, then why is he driving with a dying woman in the backseat? Does he have anything to do with the dying? This is even more interesting (the opening, that is, which follows), than the idea of writing obituaries as an homage to life. Also, how can he be "mostly" suicidal? Could he be "on the verge of suicide" instead, or contemplating suicide (and as a post-script, do we ever get to understand why?)? I assume the logline is the pre-story or backstory, and the opening reveals a time more recent than the one the logline describes.

    I would love to read on. Congratulations. Really wonderful writing.

  4. Beautiful writing in this entry. It's very evocative and real, and I feel as I know the characters already. I admire the choice of beginning your story with the moment someone dies. And although I don't know yet why there is a dying woman in the back of the car, in a book such as this it is OK for facts to unfurl slowly.

    Through observational detail and dialogue and atmosphere, I feel the tension of this moment. Well done.

    Only points to bring up: You use breathing/throat sound imagery with both the dying woman and the woman sitting in back with her. I think it would be stronger if only one of them were defined that way. And there is a repetition of the word "last" in the first graph.

    Nancy Bilyeau

  5. Sorry, the rep is in the first graph!

    And now I need to prove I am not a robot again :)

  6. I like the real humanity in this one, how both people are touched by the death. So many stories show tough, snarky type people that this feels real. They were sad about Alice so I was too, even though I didn't know her.

  7. This is strong overall, but I agree with Nancy about the breathing and throat sounds; I think you've got too much of that going on. Though I'm all for realism, I particularly didn't care for the reference to the phlegm in Becky's throat. I think it detracts from the impact of the description of Alice's final breath.

    I was puzzled by the '10 miles West' in the first line. Why is it '10' rather than 'ten', and why is 'West' capitalized? If it's not a typographical error and it's meant to symbolize something, I don't see how it could work, as it seems it would feel too contrived.

    Though I have no problem with fragments when used for the right effect, I also didn't care for having 'Slowed the car slightly' as a separate sentence; I don't think it's adding anything here and it sounds a little awkward.

    And I confess I have mixed feelings about the Carl Sandburg reference, because I was so acutely aware of it that it was almost distracting. Though I certainly like references to poetry, literature, music, etc. in general, I know you have to be careful how you handle them, or it can come across as a tad self-conscious--i.e. too deliberate.

    This sounds like a compelling story, and I thought the couple's reaction to Alice's passing was very believable and touching. Good luck!

  8. I don't have anything else to say that hasn't already been said. The writing is beautiful and evocative. The way you handle death is well done, but you also leave a lot of questions that would propel me to read further.

  9. Why doesn't this have more comments?! (Maybe because there aren't many negative things to critique.)

    I really enjoyed the writing here. There are so many great lines jammed into this 250 words, it leaves me wanting to read more.

    Great job, and good luck tomorrow!

  10. Wow. Great opening line, and very nice opening in general. I'll admit to being quite enthralled with the writing in this piece.

    I think my only quibble is with the logline. It grabs, but it also feels like it lays out the whole story (i.e., I feel like I know, at least in general terms, how it's going to play out, because it tells us). It take a bit of the wind out. I'd prefer more enticement, less giving it away. But that's a minor point in an otherwise strong entry.

    The one other smalll item that stuck out was Becky's eventual answer. It's so far removed fromt he quesiton that it felt slightly intrusive (though perhaps that is by design?). Anyway, the rhythm there just felt off, is all.

    Best of luck with it!

  11. The logline promises such a unique premise! And you have such a beautiful narrative voice. My only comment would be that while there's a lot of (wonderful!) imagery about Becky, I found myself wondering about Alice. In that moment when he hears that she's dead, what imagery does this evoke for him? I think there's a moment in there to capture Alice's essense--what he feels he's lost through losing her. With that said, I so wanted to keep reading!

    Good luck!

  12. Michelle wins I think because of the five comment thing.


    The full goes to Michelle Wolfson!