July 14, 2007
Dedicated to the Thirteen Danish Cartoonists
I first met my charismatic, untamable and fire-eating friend Doug Marlette on a beautiful day in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I had come to sign copies of my first novel The Great Santini. In Belks’ Department Store, where I had not sold a single book, I was sitting alone when a hot-air balloon passed the window. I waved to the two colorfully dressed balloonists, and they waved back. One minute later, there was a terrific explosion and I ran to the window to see the balloon go up in flames near electric wires. Both balloonists were killed. Then I went on to lunch and met the incomparable Doug Marlette. Because of Belks’ and the fiery death of those lighter than air fliers, I would always associate Doug with explosiveness, with the power of image, with all the dangers and joyfulness of the high-wire act. That day Doug was mercurial, inquisitive to a fault, and hilarious to an even greater fault. I spent the afternoon roaring with laughter.
The laughter stopped Tuesday, July 10, 2007, when Doug Marlette boarded the balloon that would drift by the window and take him out of the light of this world and into the eternal light of the next. I believe in many things, but I do not believe that death can kill the great laughter which came up naturally out of the bright soul of Doug Marlette. I think that his laughter is as eternal as God, as is his genius, his immortal, unrepeatable genius.
The second time I saw Doug, I stayed in his bachelor pad in Charlotte, where I soon realized that Doug brought the same skills to the art of housekeeping that I did in Atlanta. I asked him if there was any place in his house I could sleep without coming down with leprosy or impetigo. He told me he heard I was a picky man and suggested I sleep in my car. I would’ve taken his suggestion, I said, except that I had taken a friend’s dog to the vet the week before, and on the way, he had eaten something on the backseat of my car and died. On performing the autopsy, the grouchy vet found something in the dog’s stomach that was unidentifiable, though she believed it was over five years old. That night I slept in Doug’s guestroom, where the nicest part of the furnishings were the teeming bedbugs. That night Doug Marlette and I began the dialogue that would continue until last Tuesday.
Right before that long-ago lunch, I received a phone call from my agent Julian Bach, and Julian told me he had figured out why The Great Santini wasn’t selling. He said, “There’s absolutely no sex in it. No sex at all. Can you explain why?”
“Yes, I can, Julian,” I replied. “My grandmother’s still alive.”
When I told Doug this story, his knees hit the floor laughing, and he began asking every question imaginable about how my family had reacted to my novel. My father threw it across the room; an aunt threw it in the garbage can; my grandmother never spoke to me again, and my mother handed it to the judge at her divorce trial with my father and said, “It’s all here, your honor. No sense calling a single witness.”
Then Doug began to tell me about his family, his Grandma Gracie, who was bayoneted by National Guardsmen in the uprising of ’34 in Hillsborough. (Doug would receive his own bayoneting for writing his novel The Bridge about the same uprising.) He told me the fabulous stories of his aunts and uncles, his father’s landing on the beaches of Salerno and Anzio, his mother’s battles with depression – we talked all night, and I was treated for bedbug poisoning the next day. But our life-long discussions had begun. I said, “Son, you should write a book about that family of yours.”
“I’m no writer,” Doug said. “I’m a cartoonist.”
He was wrong about not being a writer, but that boy was born to be a cartoonist. His political cartoons were claymore mines buried in the path of whatever caught his eyes of wrath on a particular day. He could throw a spitting cobra into the lap of a lying politician, or send a B-52 bomber crew to clean out the riffraff in the North Carolina, or Oklahoma, legislature. His cartoons could cut and hurt and slice and dice and fill the water with enough blood to gather a battalion of great white sharks for a feeding frenzy. And by the way, no one was safe from his terrible, blood-soaked pen. In the time I knew him, Doug received death threats from Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, blacks, whites, and gays- and as far as I could tell, he deserved every one of them. But to Doug Marlette, his cartoons were his personal response to the immense challenge raised by our founding fathers and the Constitution. A free speech fanatic, he was one of its most eloquent and passionate defenders.
Here is the final joke that Doug Marlette played on me. I promise all of you this: I thought Doug would write my eulogy. It never occurred to me that I would be writing his. When my wife, Cassandra King, came to tell me about Doug’s death, I went downstairs to call Melinda and all the people I knew who loved Doug. There has been no hint of manliness or stiff-upper lip to my grief, no John Wayne or Arnold Swartznegger or Great Santini quality to my grief. For three days I have bawled and wailed and cried my eyes out. I feel like I’m playing PeeWee Herman in Doug’s final book of days. But then reporters started calling from around the country, and I had to fake some imitation of manhood and answer their questions with some sort of virile flair.
One reporter said, “I understand you were good friends with Doug Marlette.”
“Yep,” I said.
“I understand you talked to each other by phone every day of your lives.”
“Don’t you think that’s kind of weird?” the reporter asked.
“Do you mean in some sicko-psycho-sexual way?” I asked.
“I just think it’s strange,” he said. “How long did you two talk?”
“Sometimes for fifteen minutes. Sometimes for two hours. I hung up when I heard Doug snoring.”
“I only call my mother once a month,” the reporter said.
“What a great son,” I replied.
“Can you give me a reason that you talked to him every day?” the young reporter said.
“Yes. Because I adored him. Because I loved him with my heart and soul. And loved his cartoons, his books, his family, and everything else about him. Because I got to love Doug Marlette, I got to laugh every day of my life. Sometimes I got to scream laughing.”
Doug had an impish, mischievous side that could make him slightly untrustworthy. Several years ago, Doug introduced me before I gave a talk at a literary conference in Hoover, Alabama. Remember, no one knows the rattlesnake-like humor of Doug better than I do. So, I sat flinching in my seat as he referred to my second wife as “the Taliban.” He then implied that Barbra Streisand and I had had a passionate affair during the making of The Prince of Tides. He told the audience how much I had suffered when my twelfth wife left me for another woman. I was beginning to sweat when Doug broke into one of those mountain-pools of genius he kept in secret. Doug and I both liked to make fun of Southern literature and the great clichés of the South that Hollywood holds so dear to its heart. With an exaggerated Southern accent, he told the Alabama crowd that “Pat and I’d go out on the front porch on those warm Hillsborough evenings at the end of a sweltering summer day, and just sit and rock and listen to the crickets chirpin’, and the pickup truck idlin’, and the coon dogs bayin’ off in the distance, and we’d sip sweet tea and moonshine and chew tobacco and dip snuff and eat moonpies and shuck corn and shell peas and make biscuits and cornbread and sing hymns, and strum banjos and watch fireflies lift out of the grass as the sun set behind the wisteria, and we’d swap stories and tell lies and speak in tongues and handle snakes, bury mama and hide from drunken daddy, and get uncle out of prison, and integrate the schools and look after the idiot man-child next door, and just do all the things we Southerners do whenever two or more of us are gathered – you know, contemplate the hold of the land over us and our abiding sense of place, and the awful responsibility of time.”
Yes, time, Doug. We come at last to time and the stillness of your lionesque heart. In all our talks, there were things you did not tell me. What do you do when your heart breaks and you can’t call Doug Marlette to fix it?
Here is a moment of lost time. I had brought my three daughters, Jessica, Melissa, and Megan to vacation with you and your new girl friend, the dazzling Melinda Hartley. At nightfall, you asked if you and Melinda could take the girls, whose ages ranged from 5 to 8, up to the Pavilion at Ocean Isle. I was a recently divorced father and nervous about any separation from my girls, but they begged me and told me that Doug and Melinda are the “coolest” adults they’ve ever met. I let them go, and saw them walking down the beach talking with great animation with Doug, handsome as a movie star, and Melinda, beautiful as only Melinda can be. As I watched, I saw Megan lift her arm and take Doug’s hand while Jessica and Melissa reached up for Melinda’s hand. Great friendships are formed from moments like these. The girls still remember it as one of the great nights of their childhood. All the girls are here today for the love of Doug, Melinda, and Jackson. One result of that walk down the beach is that Doug and Melinda decided to get married. They wanted a kid of their own to hold their hands in the ocean.
But time, Doug. It moves and surges and carries on. I revered you most as an artist because you were incapable of making art that was cold to the touch. Whenever you wrote or drew, you set all your swords on fire and swallowed that fiery steel before our eyes. The cutlery of your art was always flame-born and fire-tested, and I loved every bit of it as it came smoking off the pages. Doug Marlette, thank you for finding me as a young man; thank you for praising and liking my work; and thank you for every glorious over-achieving day of your life. Our communion was based, I think, on our untouchable loneliness, our oceanic rage, and our desperate need to connect. We helped each other make it through the mist and confusion of all our days. Here is how close we are: On the day I heard about your death, Doug, I went to my office and dialed 919-323-0999. Then I caught myself and realized I was calling to tell you the terrible news. I did the same thing the next day and the next. I kept wanting to call you to tell you that you had died. You would’ve screamed with laughter at that; I didn’t and I still don’t.
And here is the thing that we admired the most about each other – our fighting spirits, that we were the sons of warriors and that we went to battle for the causes of underdogs and we didn’t care who got in the way or who didn’t like it. Let me bring a little of our fighting spirit into your eulogy. Doug Marlette and I hated what happened to the Duke LaCrosse team and the lynch mob that pursued them and the stupid group of 88 who seemed more to us like a nestlings in a Perdue chicken farm than professors at a great university. But that’s not quite worthy of your fighting spirit, Doug, my Prince Aragorn who walked toward kingship fighting demons and orks in our own Fellowship of the Ring. For you, Doug, in honor of you, my next book is to be named Bring Me the Head of Alan Gurganus. In memory of you, Doug Marlette, each year I am going to bring a hundred of my novels, dump them in Lee Smith’s front yard, and conduct a seminar on the burning of books because I am so afraid of the Hillsborough writers forgetting the fine art of censoring books and being the enemies of free speech. Your novel The Bridge is a love song to the town of Hillsborough, North Carolina, and one of the best books ever written about the American labor movement. Some of the writers of Hillsborough – and the subject is head lice, Doug – think it’s about a jerk in red tennis shoes.
There. Now I feel better, Doug. That’s why we were friends and that’s why we talked every day of our lives, and that’s why it was a bad thing to cross us. I made one terrible mistake. You always told me to trust my instincts –always – you told me that was the true north of my artistry. I didn’t always, except once. I did not want to go to Duke University’s stupid writing conference last year, but they were doing a segment on your and my unbreakable friendship. I fought you out of instinct, but you prevailed. I was afraid a celebration of that friendship would be just the thing to ruin it. The conference was wonderful and we had a ball. But neither of us ever imagined that death would be what took our friendship a little over a year later. The phone number 919-323-0999 used to connect me to the voice of my best friend. Now it connects me to silence.
Time again, Doug. Strange and elegant time. I last saw you at your father’s funeral, this past weekend. We embraced as we said goodbye. I did not embrace you hard enough. I did not see the moment you stepped into that fabulous balloon – remember the one? – the one that drifted past that lovely window at Belk’s Department store, then exploded into flame a block away on the day we met. Now, old friend, greatest friend, tell me what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life?
Walnut Grove United Methodist Church
July 14, 2007