July 10 on my calendar reads: “Doug Day — Five Years.”
That is, five years ago, my friend Doug Marlette — Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, novelist, playwright, raconteur and cultural omnivore — died in a car accident on a rainy road between Memphis and Oxford, Miss.
This is not to be maudlin, I feel compelled to say, which is also a way of apologizing for indulging a personal loss. But it is summer and this is what columnists do when they figure the Earth will continue to turn on its axis if one commentator fails to acknowledge that a given politician has revealed himself to be flawed in some way.
It is, moreover, a worthy topic because Marlette’s premature exit at age 57 was a loss to a world never more desperately in need of sane voices and humorous reminders of our human-ness, as he would put it. His gimlet eye on all things sublime and absurd has not been replaced and may never be. The world produces a few geniuses now and then who are simply sui generis, and Marlette was surely one.
I know I speak for dozens of close friends and family members — and even a good number of enemies — when I say that Marlette was that rare creature who could size up a person, place, event or trend with a glance that was simultaneously mirthful and homicidal. He was an intellectual assassin with a preternatural knack for zeroing in on hypocrites and phonies, and woe unto those under his gaze. Your most deeply guarded secret was transparent to him; your most precious conceit a speck of lint on his sleeve.
I have written about Marlette periodically as topics have permitted because this is what friends do: remember. It is also a pleasant duty to remind others not only of his gifts but of his contributions to the national conversation. We weep that Marlette missed Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, two characters he would have relished revealing. He missed Palin entirely, but he did catch a glimpse of Obama and was deeply skeptical of his presidential candidacy.
Because I had been in Boston for Obama’s convention speech in 2004, I was convinced that he was a future president and said so. Marlette just chuckled and said, “Yeah, well, we’ll see.” For someone addicted to deadlines at an early age, Marlette was proudly at ease with ambiguity and patient in the way of old souls. He knew that the gods exact justice from those who try to steal their fire. He was usually prescient.
Though a committed Democrat, Marlette was no ideologue and wasn’t fond of those who were. He would have rolled in clover at the sight of his colleagues clamoring to hold up the hem of Obama’s raiment. His cackle would have rattled the rafters upon watching Palin (whom he would have admired as a force of nature) work crowds into a froth while his own tribe writhed in revulsion at her flirty ignorance. He would have understood as few others that, though Palin may have lacked fluency in the language of elites, she knew instinctively how to create and then harness emotional contagion.
Marlette had long distanced himself from the cacophony of the burgeoning media world, which formed the original basis for our friendship. He responded to a column I had written about the death of newspapers and thus began a conversation that lasted five years. Living in adjoining Carolinas (his North and my South), we created a virtual newsroom, plotting columns and cartoons from our respective bunkers. Like prisoners in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” we knocked on the cell floor and whispered, “Anybody there?”
Descended from what he called “lintheads,” Marlette had experienced New York the way Walker Percy said Southerners must (to discover they’re just as smart as those Northern boys). He had a nice dance with earned fame but eventually found his way back home — just like Kudzu, the comic strip character he created and nurtured for 30 years.
I could write a book, but much of Marlette can be found in those he wrote, including more than a dozen cartoon collections, a memoir about cartooning (“In Your Face”), two novels — “The Bridge,” based on his textile-working, union-organizing family, and “Magic Time,” a love story that manages to make a sturdy connection between terrorism now and during the civil rights era in Mississippi.
You’ll find some of the man in both novels, and I commend them — and him — to you.