Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Brush with Greatness

I saw Doug Marlette on a book tour a little over a year ago. Upon hearing he would be coming through South Carolina, I made the drive from Charleston to Litchfield Books, a wonderful independent store owned by Tom and Vickie Warner.

Doug's second novel Magic Time had just been released to fabulous reviews and seemed the proper follow-up to his award-winning first novel The Bridge. Doug knew what fame and notoriety were about, having won the Pulitzer Prize for his editorial cartoons in the Charlotte and Atlanta newspapers. According to his best friend Pat Conroy, with whom he spoke every morning, this novel writing thing had turned into a second career, and it was ridiculous to think one man could have so much talent.

And that was precisely why I wanted to meet him. It's a privilege to meet people who have mastered anything (a Tiger Woods, a Wynton Marsalis, a Meryl Streep), but here was a guy who achieved success in TWO fields (rigorous, competitive ones at that).

As is common for all writers who've endured a book tour, the store was nearly empty. Turn out had been modest, and I arrived midway through the second hour. I shook Doug's hand, mentioned a few friends I knew we had in common, and we talked for the better part of 30 minutes. Doug was gracious (wanted to know details about my writing (this took 8 seconds)); he was charming and told me several stories about the inspiration for The Bridge; he signed both my books with generous inscriptions; and he gave me a quick pep talk about making it in a cut-throat industry. I left the store pumped, ready to write, feeling as if I'd made a new friend.

I did not see him or speak to him after that. Nine months later, he died in a car crash. He was on his way to a Mississippi high school who had produced a musical about his cartoon strip Kudzu, and had planned to meet the students who'd adapted his work. The road was wet. The car he rode in hydroplaned and hit a tree. He died instantly.

That fall, I read an article Doug had written before his death about getting to spend an afternoon with Walker Percy in 1989 a year or so before Percy died. In the article, Doug mentioned several times how generous Percy had been with him, a young man on the cusp of life learning from the wise. He said it was an experience he'd remember the rest of his life. When I think about my afternoon with Doug Marlette, I think, me, too.

I met him once. I miss him anyway.

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