The year 2016 is probably going to go down as an officially designated “bad year,” not unlike 2001 or 1968 or 1929. Lots of celebrity deaths clustered together, plus an authoritarian reality TV star’s ascension to the United States presidency, will have that effect.
I’ve been meaning to write something thoughtful about deaths that have affected me this year. But I’ve been so damn busy. In keeping with my site’s current motto of “minimum viable product,” I will simply write the following:
Merle Haggard died on April 6, his birthday. To me, his body of work excels Woody Guthrie’s, and in some ways, it rivals Bob Dylan’s. It’s true that Merle never wrote a song like “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But Dylan never hopped freight trains, and Woody’s populism has always struck me as geared more toward middle-class liberals than being a convincing and plaintive affirmation from below, like this number by Merle, one of my favorites.
I discovered Merle Haggard in my early 20s, and I rode him hard through my years as a trucker and construction worker. I managed to see him perform twice, once in New York City’s Tramps in 1997 or so. David Byrne was there, too.
Then, a few years ago, he played on a double bill with Kris Kristofferson at Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheater. I remember Merle’s offhanded remark about how he and Kris were two old men singing songs they’d written in their 20s.
I find myself squelching the urge to write an unfinishable essay about Merle. Minimum viable product and all. Look up “Kern River.” His Bakersfield, remembered nostalgically and bitterly, is as richly realized as Springsteen’s Jersey or Van Morrison’s Belfast.
Here’s Merle at the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors with Oprah Winfrey, Bill T. Jones, and… Paul McCartney. The video tribute is very nicely done, but I’d skip the music tributes.
The second celebrity death of the year? A writer who is so modest, graceful, and brilliant that I’m ashamed to be discussing him in terms so vulgar as a “celebrity casualty of 2016.” And besides, he lived to be 88, so his passing is no tragedy, except in the larger sense. His name is William Trevor, one of the greatest living non-famous writers. He’s now a recently deceased non-famous writer, of course.
I was really into William Trevor in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I have The New Yorker to thank for the introduction, and I proceeded to hunt down his other work–novels, novellas, and even his memoir, Excursions in the Real World. I’m no book collector, but his The Collected Stories was the first and only time I’ve noticed or cared that I owned a first edition.
Trevor wrote about ordinary people living humdrum lives in dreary Ireland and drearier England. And his stories are fucking awesome, one after the other. He’s like Maupassant or Chekhov. He sets up his nondescript characters drinking their tea, but somewhere he’s liable to pull a sap from his pocket and knock you out. Sometimes he knocks you out with with unexpected violence in his stories, and sometimes he does it with crushingly unexpected poignancy, as in this description of the aftermath of a nobody character’s death:
A person’s life isn’t orderly …it runs about all over the place, in and out through time. The present’s hardly there; the future doesn’t exist. Only love matters in the bits and pieces of a person’s life.
In the bits and pieces of my own life, as opposed to my imaginary one, two other people died in 2016 who were close to me. They both read at my wedding. One is my wife’s uncle, Stanley Keymer, who lived in Rovaniemi, Finland, with his partner Monna. The other is my mother’s brother, uncle Mark Hogan, who lived in Mystic, Conn. They died one day apart in October. One death came suddenly, the other after years of struggle and revival.
Both of these kindhearted men were veterans: Stanley of the British Navy, Mark of the U.S. Marines. Mark was a teacher and he liked sailing and acting for local theater. Stanley was a social worker and he liked soccer, including Charlton Athletic, the soccer club of his London boyhood, and Rovaniemen Palloseura (RoPS), the soccer club of his adopted hometown.
Here they are, on our wedding day.